Christmas Music From 17th Century Germany

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Themed Christmas programs such as this are common–and often unimpressive, unexceptional. Of course they’re common because it’s very easy to program a concert consisting of all German, or Celtic, or Appalachian, or Hungarian, or Scandinavian, or whatever, music. But to make it truly interesting to a large number of discerning listeners, the programming can’t just be a collection that fits the chosen category: it has to reflect a thoughtful, imaginative, knowledgeable process, one that will engage and even inform its audience. This one, with the rather uninspiring–and only broadly descriptive–title “A German Christmas”, actually shows that thoughtfulness, creativity, and knowledge of repertoire that promises its listeners an experience both impressive and informative.

All of this is achieved with a group of first-rate vocalists and instrumentalists, who, although performing many familiar works–many by Michael Praetorius, others by Schütz, Hassler, and Schein–render them in settings we haven’t necessarily heard before. Director Marit Broekroelofs and her colleagues offer interesting combinations of instruments–viols, cornetto, frame drum, organ–with one or two or more voices–to make well-known pieces such as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, In dulci jubilo, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern sound fresh, giving ears that have heard these works a million times something to savor anew. Even the ubiquitous Es ist ein Ros entsprungen makes a special effect, owing to the sound of a plaintive, pure-voiced soprano (Marjon Strijk) perfectly capturing with unadorned simplicity the mystical power of the words.

There are many other highlights, including contributions from other vocal soloists–tenors Kevin Skelton and Carlos Monteiro, soprano Margreet Rietveld, bass Sérgio Ramos–and the combined effect of chorus and instruments in the sumptuous sounds and rich timbres exhibited in pieces such as Praetorius’ Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr and Quem Pastores. The setting of Vater unser (taken from Hassler and others), arranged by Broekroelofs and Josué Meléndez Peláez, presents an imaginative use of instrumental colors.

But for me, aside from the exceptional singing and vocal/instrumental ensemble work, the star of the program is the abovementioned Josué Peláez, whose performances throughout on cornetto, mute cornetto, alto-mute cornetto and cornetto in A=492 (you don’t have to know what these instruments are!) stand as exemplars of both style and virtuoso technique–and are so tastefully, sensitively done that they manage to shine in support of, without distracting from (well, not too much!), accompanying vocalists or other instruments. You will return to this recording just to hear Peláez’s cornetto solos and embellishments. They are that good–as good or better than anything you’ve heard before.

Organist Gerrit Hoving’s contributions–an opening solo Praeludium by Franz Tunder and accompaniments in several of the choral selections–and others by fellow organist Jorge López Escribano (on positiv organ)–add welcome variety and, again, color, to the ensemble sound–recorded in the Oude Helena Church in Aalten (the Netherlands), “a spacious pseudo basilica-style building with generous acoustics” that the engineers give us every reason to appreciate. And although I always get nervous when a “congregation” is listed as singing participants on recordings like this–invariably, collectively behind the beat; one or two grotesquely booming voices dominating the rest–my fears quickly disappeared here: this congregation (which only joins on two hymn choruses) knows how to sing!

And you will know you made the right decision when you have this recording to yourself and have listened to it for, oh, the fifth or sixth or tenth time–and the Christmas season is long gone. It’s that good.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: A German Christmas--17th Century Music for the Time of Advent & Christmas

    Margaretha Consort, Marit Broekroelofs

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