Angels & Shepherds – A 17th Century Christmas. Netherlands Bach Society (Channel) – INKPOT
|performing on period instruments
Includes vocal texts with English translation.
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 15198
|If it isn’t already obvious that this is a Christmas CD – or – if you are already tired of the tons of Christmas-themed but musically insubstantial CDs out there, then the little bells which open this disc may change your mind. To be honest, I was one of the latter – I have never believed much in Christmas CDs, classical or not. Boring repetitions year after year, much like the street lighting and those unfortunate trees.
Well, the theme is all too familiar, the texts are the usual (celebrating Christmas, the birth of Christ and the like), but hmm… the composers are not at all familiar to this reviewer. Some I recognised – Praetorius, the Sweelincks, Buxtehude – and there is J.S.Bach and old reliable Mr Anonymous. But the rest I do not know. So, like some of the other classical Christmas CDs I’ve been inclined to review (such as “Gabriel’s Greeting“, which may not be of the “classical” period but is unique Christmas music nonetheless), this was to turn out to be a revealing and educational exploration of Christmas music, circa 17th century.
The obvious place of the choir in these Renaissance/Baroque carols and the alike aside, there is the presence of a consort of instruments which gives this collection an enjoyable dash of colour. The sound is thus recognisably “Renaissance”, sometimes of Monteverdian vibrance, others of Buxtehudian solemn beauty. Being a viol consort enthusiast myself, I especially enjoyed the contributions of the three violins, which are atmospherically complemented by a continuo of violone and violoncello, with organ, theorbo and harpsichord.
The choir and consort can be deliciously sampled in the only Buxtehude track, with the composer’s trademark melodic richness, wavy melisma writing and the seamless shifting of tempo and mood. Excellent stuff. Another particularly fine setting is Johan Crger’s Frhlich soll mein Herze springen (9: “Joyfully my heart shall leap”), which crafts consort dance with choral and solo voices, creating a simple but colourful work.
Delightfully surprising is the lively little instrumental dance (complete with percussion by way of struck soundboard, probably the theorbo’s) that concludes the anonymous setting of Gloria in excelsis Deo on track 3, while a set of variations on the lullaby theme of J.P. Sweelinck’s Ons is gheboren een kinderkijn (6: “To us is born a little child”) adorns the vocal setting that preceeds it.
Among the carols are lullabies, an important ingredient in the celebration of Christmas with regards to the scene of the nativity and of Christ the infant in peaceful slumber. Here we are treated to a serene rendition of Samuel Scheidt’s O Jesulein sss, with the Netherlands Bach choir in sumptious body of tone.
It is musically obvious, as the notes indicate, that the Italianate composers took pleasure in the dramatic potential of the text and music. Their favourite genre was the dialogue, basically miniature operatic scenes involving a handful of singers and instrumentalists.
Inspired by the scenes of the Annunciation and the arrival of the Magi among others, these composers produced such colourful and brilliant scores as the settings of Gloria in altissimis Deo (higher than “in excelsis Deo”?) by Giovanni Battista Fergusio (for 3 sopranos, alto, 2 tenors, bass and continuo) and another by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (for 2 sops, 2 tens and continuo). The performances are excellent all round. The Capella Figuralis choir is superb, the sopranos lighting the vocal skies with their delightful ascents and swoops in the grand tradition of 17th century Italian opera.
Another fine and thoroughly enjoyable example is Jan Baptist Verrijt’s Currite, pastores (12, “Hasten ye shepherds”) – just listen to the opening interchanges of “currite” (“hasten”) between the sopranos: what brilliant vocalworks! For something less dramatic while being truly beautiful, listen to the purity of the sopranos who grant the blessings of their voices to J.P. Sweelinck’s Ons is gheborenen kinderkijn as well as Praetorius’ Ei mein Perle on the following track which is joined to D.J.Sweelinck’s Hoe schoon lichtet.
It is not indicated exactly who is singing what on the CD sleeve, which is a great pity for these angelic voices. As it is, for the sopranos, we are given no lesser names than Johannette Zomer, Anne Grimm and Caroline Stam from the Cappella Figuralis – they are all splendid soloists of their own right on other albums (eg. Zomer in the fabulous Harmonia Mundi recording of Bach’s B minor Mass under Herreweghe reviewed here; and Grimm in Vols.4 & 5 of the Erato Bach Cantatas cycle).
The notes by the Netherlands Bach Society’s artistic director Jos van Veldhoven are rather too short – there is no information provided specifically on all the lesser-known composers. Most of the names are only mentioned in passing. But that aside, this is a wonderful collection of music, magnificently performed, making Christmas a little bit more unfamiliar (which is good).
CHIA HAN-LEON will be spending Y2K eve at some Tanglin bazaar.
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611: 8.12.1999 Chia Han-Leon
All original texts are copyrighted. Please seek permission from the Classical Editor
Anonymous Wie schn leuchtet der morgenstern
PRAETORIUS Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Anonymous Gloria in excelsis Deo
SCHEIDT O Jesulein sss
J.P.SWEELINCK Angelus ad pastores ait
J.P.SWEELINCK Ons is gheboren een kindekijn
D.J.SWEELINCK/PRAETORIUS Hoe schoon lichtet de morghen ster-Wie schn leuchtet der Morgenstern
COZZOLANI Gloria in altissimis Deo
CRGER Frhlich soll mein Herze springen
FERGUSIO Gloria in altissimis Deo
BUXTEHUDE In dulci jubilo BuxWV 52
VERRIJT Currite pastores
PRAETORIUS/LUTHER/HASSLER Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her
VIERDANCK Ich verkndige euch grosse Freude
J.S.BACH Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her BWV 701
J.S.BACH Christum wir sollen loben schon BWV 696
J.S.BACH Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BWV 697
J.S.BACHIch steh an deiner Krippen hier
CARISSIMI O anima festina
HAMMERSCHMIDT Ehre sei Gott in der Hhe