An Old World Christmas: Knabenchor Hannover, Die Gruppe fur Alte Musik Munchen and Flautando Koln
My family is hosting a German Foreign Exchange student this year. Among the many questions he has been asked by his American peers is, "How do you celebrate Christmas in Germany?" Innocent enough, but considering that German culture is millenia old compared to that of the US, Germany might be expected to celebrate Christmas much like Americans do since both traditions derive from Western European ancestors, many of them German.
Consider the music of the season. The melody for "Hark, the Herald Sing" is taken from Felix Mendelssohn's cantata, Festgesang zur Eraffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Sakularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst. "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" was first "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," first appearing in 1599 in the the Speyer Hymnal, with the familiar harmonization composed by German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609. Praetorius also composed the music Americans associate with "Young Christian Men Rejoice (as "In Dulci Jublio"). "Silent Night" was first "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" composed by a German priest, Father Josef Mohr with the melody by Austrian headmaster Franz Xaver Gruber. And let's not forget a certain Saxon named George Frideric Handel?
ARS Musici has recently reissued a grand spate of German Christmas music recorded in the late 1990s by German orchestras and choirs. These three releases are among the best of the bunch, demonstrating a proper Old World Christmas.
Knabenchor Hannover, Fiori Musicali Bremen, Harald Vogel, Orgel, Leitung: Heinz Hennig
Vom Himmel Hock: Weihnachtliche Kantaten und Motetten Norddeutscher Meister
Johann Sebastian Bach may have transformed the Baroque period in music, but he was by no means the only composer to shape it. Earlier in the Baroque period several composers associated with Northern Germany were prominent in pre-Bach motets and cantatas. Vom Himmel Hoch presents Christmas settings by German masters all but forgotten today. The title derives from Martin Luther's treatment of Luke 2, the most famous of the Nativity stories, and is the first clause "Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, Ich bring' euch gute neue Maehr..." ("From Heaven on high I come here, I bring you good news...").
Primary among the included composers is Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), who was instrumental in developing Protestant church music. Praetorius is credited with composing settings for "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" and "In Dulci Jublio." Praetorius composed during the early Baroque, his music retaining vestiges of the German Renaissance. Extending forth across the middle Baroque was Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), whom a 20-year-old JS Bach once walked 250 miles from Arnstadt to Buxtehude's home in Lubeck, to meet the composer, hear him play, and as Bach quaintly explained "to comprehend one thing and another about his art."
Knabenchor Hannover is a well-known boys choir with a history dating from 1950, when the group was formed and directed by Heinz Hennig. The group's vocal dynamics are exquisitely controlled with a precise sweetness and timbre. Under Hennig's direction, they breath 20th century life into these 16th century masterpieces. Instumentation is capably provided by Fiori Musicali on modern instruments with support of organist Harald Vogel.
Visit Knabenchor Hannover on the web.
Die Gruppe fur Alte Musik Munchen, Martin Zobeley
"Der Tag der ist so freundenriche" Munchner Weinachtsmusik des 16. Jahrhunderts
The integrating element of pieces collected on "Der Tag der ist so freundenriche" Munchner Weinachtsmusik des 16. Jahrhunderts is its 16th century Munich origins. Composers of the time included the likes of Orlando di Lasso (1532- 1594), Ludwig Senfl (ca. 1486-1542/43) and Ludwig Daser (1525-1589). These are slightly less familiar names as those found on the other objects of this review, making them that much more interesting as an example of regional Baroque composition.
What these disparte composers have in common is that they were beckoned by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in the early 1520s to come to Munich to replace Emperor Maximilian's court ensemble which had been dispanded shortly after his death in 1519. Led by Ludwig Senfl, this group of composers created a golden age of Catholic liturgical music that only ended with the death of Lasso in 1594.
This music is post-plainchant simple polyphony. It is beautifully austere and pure in its delivery by Die Gruppe fur Alte Musik Munchen, who gracefully expose the rippling melodies of ancient music (Daser's "Et verbum caro factum est" illustrating this well). Lasso's setting of the same provides an interesting contrast with the Flemish composer's stark solo vocal with lute. The true novelty in this music is how rare it is. The market is clotted with seasonal offerings of the ancient sort and it remains nice to take the road less traveled and discover such superb music not composed by Bach, Vivaldi or Handel.
Visit Die Gruppe fur Alte Musik Munchen on the web.