Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Raunächte - The Twelve Nights after Christmas in Pastels

For Americans, the Twelve Days of Christmas means turtledoves, drummers drumming and five golden rings. But for Northern Europeans, that time between Christmas day and Epiphany (January 6) is when winter weather is often its harshest. And yet it's also a time of hope.

Raunächte collects twelve works that exemplify that spirit of hope "in the bleak midwinter." If the carol "The 12 Days of Chrismas" evokes bright, primary reds and greens, these compositions conjure up images in soft pastels. Even works such as John Rutter's "Gabriel's Message" and Edward Elgar's "The Snow" seem more muted.

The LaCapella-Family is a group of five ensembles that present a varied program. The contemporary selections are especially strong. Ola Gjeilo's "Tundra" depicts the windswept landscape with a hauntingly beautiful melody set against rustling strings and piano. "The Piece of Wild Things" by Joan Szymko for female choir and piano glistens like moonlight reflections on snow. I love it.

Also of note in this album of extraordinarily beautiful works is Franz Herzog's luminous arrangement of "Es wird scho glei dumpa" for a capella choir. The album concludes with a joyful "Magnificat" by Agneta Skjöld.

If you're looking for something different this holiday season, consider Raunächte. It's seasonal music drawn in pastels, yet with an amazing variety of emotions and tonal colors. 

Raunächte - The Twelve Nights after Christmas
Music by John Rutter, Ola Gjeilo, Joan Szymko, Wilhelm Nagel, Morten Vinther Sørensen, Cesar Bresgen, Edward Elgar, Gjendine Slålien, Felix Mendelssohn, Agneta Skjöld  
Rondeau Productions ROP6149

Friday, December 08, 2017

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week 2

I'm a regular contributor to the #ClassicsaDay Twitter feed. In December 2017, I focused on the music of the season that doesn't get a lot of exposure -- but should. Below is an annotated list of the works I featured in the feed with the supporting hashtag #ClassicalChristmas.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) - Weihnachtshistorie, SWV 435

Heinrich Schütz was one of the most famous -- and influential -- German composers of the generation before Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach used Schütz's sacred choral works as models for his own. The Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) premiered in Dresden in 1623. It's a very Lutheran treatment of the text, with clarity paramount. The work features a six-part choir, an orchestra, and soloists.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - Weihnachtsbaum

Franz Liszt composed his Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) suite for his first grandchild, Daniela von Bülow. He played it for her on Christmas Day, 1881, when she was 21. The work has twelve sections, divided into three books. Several German Christmas carols are quoted in the work, including "Adeste Fidelis" and "O Holy Night." Lizst also created a piano 4-hands version of the work.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) - Missa Hodie Christus natus est

Often called "the Prince of Music," Palestrina's style became the standard for sacred music in the Roman Catholic Church for generations. Palestrina wrote music for all aspects of worship. The "Hodie Christus natus est" is one of 105 masses Palestrina wrote. Based on a motet of the same name, it was designed for the Christmas Morning worship service.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) - In Terra Pax, Op. 39

English composer Gerald Finzi set poetry by Robert Bridges with selections from Luke. This work is a modern contemplation of the Christmas story. As Finzi relates it, the inspiration came from an event of his youth. Finzi had climbed up a church tower and heard the midnight bells echoing over the snow-swept hills of Gloucestershire welcoming Christmas Day.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) - Lauda per la Natività del Signore

Respighi drew the texts for Lauda per la Natività del Signore from two sources. He used a medieval hymn of praise and the writings of 13th C. cleric Jacophone da Todi. The work, written around 1930, focuses on the birth of Jesus and the Annunciation to the shepherds (and their visit). Respighi's scoring heavily relies on double reeds (oboes and bassoons) to evoke a pastoral feel.

#ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week 1

Thursday, December 07, 2017

In Dulci Jubilo - Music for the Christmas by Buxtehude and Friends

I've been burnt out on Christmas music for some time -- even classical Christmas music. But In Dulci Jubilo promised something fresh -- seasonal music from Dieterich Buxtehude and his colleagues. And it was recorded by Paul Hillier and the Theater of Voices. I wasn't disappointed.

In Dulci Jubilo is a time capsule of Christmas and Advent music from Northern Germany in the late 1600s. The Protestant Reformation had established its own musical voice.

Dietrich Buxtehude, Heinrich Scheidemann, Franz Tundar, Johann Christoph Bach (J.S. Bach's great uncle) laid the foundation composers of the High Baroque would build on.

Paul Hillier is a meticulous director, and his attention to detail shows in the performances and the program. The Theatre of Voices has an exceptionally seamless blend. And they're all top-notch soloists as well. The program takes the listener through the liturgical season, from Advent through Epiphany with selections to match. And the works are nicely balanced between choral and instrumental.

Some selections are familiar, such as In Dulci Jubilo and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star). Others, such as Buxtehude's Das neugeborne Kindelein and J.C. Bach's  Merk auf, mein Herz were new to me.

But familiar or not, there's a consistency that runs through all these works. Luther was all about clarity, and these works deliver their message in a straightforward fashion. The pulse is always clear, and no matter how artful the counterpoint, the words are never obscured.

In Dulce Jubilo is a well-sung, well-organized program that effectively captures a moment in time. A moment that more than hints of the grandeur that was to come with Bach, Handel, and Telemann.

In Dulci Jubilo
Music for the Christmas Season by Buxtehude and Friends
Theater of Voices, Paul Hillier, director
Dacapo 6.220661 SACD