A Baroque Christmas
London String Players
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Camden Wind Ensemble
Charles Spinks, organ
Heinrich Schütz Choir
Roger Norrington, conductor
Few melodies warm the heart during Christmas time more than sacred Baroque music. Its elaborated musical texture blend incredibly well with its sincere and effective devotion and faith for the birth of the Son of God and it is perhaps the extraordinary balance between two apparently incompatible features that still attracts the listeners of four centuries later.
In this wonderful collection of ten choral works recorded in 1968, Roger Norrington and the Heinrich Schütz Choir offer a selection of songs written between late Renaissance and early Baroque by some of the most outstanding composers of the time, whose names are still dear to early music lovers: for the German area, there are Michael Schütz (1585-1672), reputed one of the most influential composers for around 250 years not only for the quality of his works, but also for his precious teaching; Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), considered by The New Grove as «the most versatile and wide-ranging composer of his generation and one of the most prolific»; Andreas Hammerschmidt (1611 or 1612-1675), Schütz’s pupil and one of the most significant German composers of church music; and finally Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), who was a trait d’union between German and Italian music for his studies and friendship with Andrea Gabrieli.
Gabrieli (c. 1554-1642), organist at St. Mark Cathedral, is one of the representative of Italian music together with another, more important composer strictly associated with Venice, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who became maestro di cappella at St Mark in 1613 and whose sacred compositions are still reputed unsurpassed models.
Guillaume Bouzignac (c.1587-1642), the most important contributor to sacred music under the reign of Louis XIII, represents the French tradition, while no less a person than Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and one of the best symphonic anthems he wrote during James II’s reign, Behold, I bring you glad tidings (1687), have been chosen for English music. The anonymous Soberana Maria completes the programme of A Baroque Christmas with a traditional work of French and Spanish origins.
The music is amazing and Norrington conveys a wonderful idea of how Christmas was felt four centuries ago: as a moment of joy and celebration, of course, but also as a pause, a meditation. From this point of view, the ten pieces of A Baroque Christmas are excellently chosen as they combine the two sides of Christmas naturally and effectively. Despite the fact that they belong to four different musical traditions, they seem nothing but complementary and – I would like to say – inevitable one after the other. Of course, differences in style are easily perceivable: no one will find similarity between the extremely flowery Bouzignac and Gabrieli’s spontaneity or Monteverdi’s crystalline incisiveness, but the fact that the German and the Italian works are more closely connected than others (the friendship between Gabrieli and Schütz was not fruitless, after all) contributes to the coherency of this recording.
As for the works themselves, they are gems, moreover performed with dazzling accomplishment by the Heinrich Schütz Choir. The sound is so rich and detailed that, if you do not know that A Baroque Christmas has been recorded in the Sixties, you cannot guess it.
Schütz’s merry Hodie Christus natus est is a perfect beginning for this recording, a beginning that reflects the joyous side of the festivity. Here the vocal splendour of the chorus really conveys the idea of rejoicing, while immediately after this piece is over Purcell’s Behold, I bring you glad tidings, introduced by the warm and evocative voice of the bass, seems to invite to meditation until the other solo voices sing their flowery melismas.
Soberana Maria is a soft, short piece sung in a whisper to give the idea of a lullaby. Hammerschmidt’s Alleluja! and Bouzignac’s Noé! Pastores, cantata Domino are two other moments of exultation, where it seems that German and French tradition compete for which one adds more embellishments to music.
Gabrieli’s O Magnum mysterium is the work that more deeply reflects on the birth of Jesus and Norrington suffuses it with an arcane atmosphere that the voices of the chorus try to penetrate. Next comes the second piece by Schütz, the “madrigale spirituale” Ach Herr, du Schlöpfer aller Ding, which echoes the atmosphere of Gabrieli’s Mysterium, and Monteverdi’s Christe, Redentor, where the chorus expresses with acute vividness the relief and the faith in God.
Praetorius’s Singt ihr lieben Christen all is a short but delightful piece sung by a lovely soprano voice, while Hassler’s Angelus ad pastores ait, the last work of A Baroque Christmas, ends the album with glorious exultancy.
The Baroque beauty of this recording is really one of the best ways to celebrate Christmas time with some of the greatest composers of early music. If you like them too, A Baroque Christmas is definitely your album.