Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Heinrich Schütz' 'Weinachtshistorie' (The Christmas Story)


The first recording of the Wienachtshistorie (REB Editions 3 (1950))
conducted by musicologist (and editor of the 1949 G. Schirmer edition)
Arthur Mendel



First performed at the court of Dresden as part of the Vespers service on Christmas Day in 1660 when the composer was 75, the Weinachtshistorie (SWV 435) remains one of Schütz' best-known, best-loved, and most-often recorded works. Drawing on the most vibrant and innovative contemporary Italian models (the narrative oratorios and cantatas of Carissimi; the antiphonal works of Venetian composers including Schütz' teacher, Gabrielli, most evident in the angel's chorus) this wholly delightful little musical pageant is nonetheless unmistakably German--and Reformationist-- in spirit, a seemingly effortless synthesis of refined cosmopolitan musical sensibility and style and populist religiosity; the conception of a mature master-craftsman, fully confident in his individual art. A sensitive performance evokes a kind of lambent chiaroscuro tableaux-vivant with its rich, warmly colorful, highly expressive arias and marvelously dynamic choral sections.

A partial version of the score was first published in 1664 by Sebastian Knüpfer of Dresden. Three different, incomplete manuscripts remained extant. The first modern edition was prepared by the German musicologist Philipp Spitta in 1885. Arnold Sherring's version for Breitkopf und Härtel dates from 1909. Arthur Mendel's edition was published by G. Schirmer in 1949, a year before the first recording appeared under Mendel's direction (REB Editions 3 (1950)). Bärenreiter Verlag published Friederich Schoeneich's edition in 1955 and this is still probably the most familiar and widely performed version. As early-music scholarship advanced in the latter years of the twentieth century, more evidence-based ideas about the score and its performance were put forward in newer editions; Fritz Stein for Shott in 1985, Neil Jenkins' critical edition for Novello from 2004, and the 2014 edition from Carus Verlag (see #14 below).

There are subtle differences in all of these editions, particularly in regard to details in the opening choral section, which did not survive except in the part for instrumental bass with an indication of where the four-part chorus should make its entry. Thus, comparative listeners will note broad differences in the instrumental introduction and choral parts from one recording to another, though the bass-line and harmonic progressions remain the same. Creative re-voicings and some liberty with 
regard to precise details of orchestration of the five-part accompaniment are not 'wrong' from an authentically textual point of view, particularly as the composer himself left a bewildering puzzle for
future musicologists to solve.

Only the evangelist's part and the texts of the eight intermedia were published in 1664. In order to perform the work in its entirety, interested parties had to seek the composer's written consent before they could rent the complete score from the publisher. Further, the afterword to the 1664 edition states:

The fact that the Author has allowed the same to be printed has therefore contributed to the consideration, since he notes that apart from royal well-established ensembles, elsewhere his inventions would be difficult to achieve in a fitting manner . . .

The writer of the afterword (in all likelihood not the composer himself) goes on to suggest that potential performers either use pre-existing material for the intermedia, or hire out a composer of their own to set those parts of the text. The publisher went so far as to advise potential performers to re-write the recitative sections should it happen to suit their needs and musical capabilities. After its 1660 premiere, duly noted in a court diary, the work's performance history was largely shrouded in mystery, and still today, much to the chagrin of musicological professionals, questions surrounding the work and its authentic execution defy easy, definitive answers. Yet adventurous listeners are all the richer for this uncertainty, and creative performers will no doubt continue to delve the beauty and magic of this music for ages to come.

[NOTE: For parts of this article, I consulted and broadly paraphrased essays by Derek McCulloch (liner notes from Argo ZRG 671 (1971) (#2 below)) and Oliver Geisler (from Carus 83.257 (2014) (#14))]



a 70s-era LP re-issue of the 1959 stereo recording by Wilhelm Ehmann on the Cantate label
(see #1 below).


The following list is based on my personal collection. It is as comprehensive as I could make it at the time of compilation (December, 2015), though it is by no means exhaustive, nor is it meant as a definitive once-for-all statement on the discography. Intrepid collectors are encouraged to go beyond this list and seek out other versions, especially those on vinyl. In any case, I have endeavored to leave a brief comment with each listing. 



DISCOGRAPHY





1.
Cantate C 57614 (1995 re-issue)
Hans Joachim Rotzsch (tenor) (evangelist)
Herte Flebbe (soprano) (angel)
Hans-Olaf Hudemann (bass) (Harod)
Wilhelm Ehmann/Westphalian Kantorei

The first stereo recording of the Weinachtshistorie was made in 1959 employing the 1955 Schoeneich/Bärenreiter edition of the score, and while the sonics on this most recent re-issue definitely betray the record's age, Wilhelm Ehmann's groundbreaking, influential and very-tasteful 'modern instruments' interpretation still holds up quite nicely today. This recording was available for a time on a Musical Heritage Society LP, issued in 1971.





2.
London (Jubilee) 430-632-2 (1991 re-issue)
Decca (Double Decca) 289-452-188-2 (1996 re-issue)
Ian Partridge (tenor) (evangelist)
Felicity Palmer (soprano) (angel)
Eric Stannard (bass) (Herod)
Heinrich Schütz Choir
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Roger Norrington/Symphoniae Sacrae Chamber Ensemble

Recorded for Argo in 1971 (LP: ZRG 671), this endearing--and enduring-- performance emphasizes the lyrical charm and reverent grandeur of Schütz' best-known work. Reading from the 1955 Schoeneich/Bärenreiter edition, Norrington conducts a 'hybrid' ensemble of period and modern instruments, doubling and reinforcing some of the parts with a modern brass choir to achieve a kind of Gabrielli-esque effect, which works marvelously well overall. Tempi in the choral sections and various interludes are virtually identical to Wilhelm Ehmann's 1959 reading for Cantate, and are considerably more deliberate than in many more-recent period-instruments performances, while the recitatives are more briskly paced. Nonetheless, Ian Partidge's evangelist is songful and soulful as few others, with lovely, aptly expressive phrasing; Simon Preston's subtle, inventively improvised organ accompaniments add greatly to the interest of  these passages. The roster of first-rate soloists and players is a veritable who's-who of the best British early music specialists of the time, and the musicianship is impeccable throughout--not a single detail seems to have been overlooked. Both the 1991 London Jubilee and 1996 Double Decca re-issues are long out of circulation and not always easy to find nowadays.




3.
Carus 83.131 (1993 re-issue)
Adalbert Kraus (evangelist)
Ursula Bukel (angel)
Hartmut Hein (Herod)
Ulsamer Collegium
Günter Graulich/Collegium Musicum Rara, Stuttgart

This version was recorded in 1973 and has been re-issued a number of times, as recently as 2004. Graulich employs an edition prepared by Klaus Hoffman for this first 'original instruments' recording of the Weinachtshistorie. In retrospect, almost everything that was wrong with the nascent period-practice movement of the day is on full display here, from ragged ensemble playing and feeble half-starved string sonorities to vexed intonation issues. Ursula Bukel is melodramatically overbearing as the angel, while Adalbert Kraus is a somewhat ponderous evangelist. Hartmut Hein's rather bland Herod lacks sufficient regal presence and dark menace. The wise men's intermedium Wo ist der neugeborne König? is oddly accompanied by sour-sounding natural horns with the organ on 8- and 16-foot Krumhorn stops, which, in its weird little way, is jarringly effective. Nor was it probably the wisest creative choice to fill out the disc with a rather heavy-handed reading of Schütz' Musikalische Exequiem (funeral music). 





4.
Orfeo C 002 811 (1984)
Heiner Hopfner (tenor)
Rachel Yakar (soprano)
Harold Stamm (bass)
Munich Motet Choir
Hans Rudolf Zöbeley/Munich Residence Orchestra

This charming, relatively late 'modern instruments' reading of the Schoeneich edition is still well-worth seeking out. The singing is consistently excellent, and the unusual interpretive choice to double the strings with pipe organ lends the piece a warmly festive glow. The Wienachtshistorie is coupled with an energetically affecting, albeit rather old-fashioned sounding performance of the familiar Latin Magnificat SWV 468. 




5.
Erato ECD-88155 (1986)
Kurt Widmer (baritone) (evangelist)
Bernadette Degelin (soprano) (angel)
Dirk Van Croonenborgh (bass) (Herod)
Schola Cantorum Bruxelliensis
Louis Devos/Musica Polyphonica

The singing and playing are fine--but this performance is so poorly paced as to sap it of almost all excitement. The evangelist's recitatives seem interminable, and, other than in the relatively spritely choruses, the reading is characterized by a kind of weary inertia. By contrast, the motets that fill out the program are full of an infectious musical energy and verve--quite enjoyable, indeed.






6.
EMI 7 47633 2 (1987)
Nigel Rogers (tenor) (evangelist)
Emma Kirkby (soprano) (angel)
David Thomas (bass) (Herod)
Taverner Choir
Andrew Parrott/Taverner Consort and Players

An all-star cast of early-music specialists bring the Weinachtshistorie to vibrantly intimate life in this version prepared by Andrew Parrott "in conjunction" with Hugh Keyte. Nigel Rogers lends a consistently mellifluous sensitivity and quietly expressive dignity to the evangelist's part, while David Thomas is a dramatically powerful--and aptly sinister-- Herod. Emma Kirkby's angel is simply angelic! The seasonal motets by Michael Praetorius that fill out the program are given exciting, joyful brassy, full-throatedly marvelous readings.




7.
Hyperion CDA66368 (1990)
Helios CDH55310 (2007 re-issue)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) (evangelist)
Ruth Holton (soprano) (angel)
Michael George (bass) (Herod)
Robert King/King's Consort

In spite of its oddly attenuated instrumental sound, this gorgeously sung rendition from 1990 remains one of the most satisfying performances in the catalog. John Mark Ainsley is simply sublime as the evangelist, lending beauty to every phrase. Ruth Holton may be a bit reedy and breathless as the angel, her voice at times possessing the color and depth of a boy soprano, but it seems to work quite well in context. Michael George brings just the right amount of dark dramatic weight to his Herod. Well worth seeking out.





8.
DG Archiv 289-463-046-2 (1999 re-issue)
Charles Daniels (tenor) (evangelist)
Susan Hemmington Jones (soprano) (angel)
Neal Davies (bass) (Herod)
Boy's Choir and Congregational Choir of Roskilde Cathedral
Paul McCreesh/Gabrielli Consort and Players

Employing a 'reconstruction' by Timothy Roberts, this rather dull, often-ham-fisted rendition disappoints as often as it pleases. The Wienachtshistorie is here incorporated into a liturgical re-enactment of a Christmas Vespers service at the Dresden court circa 1664. Though Charles Daniels acquits himself quite serviceably as the evangelist, the recorded sound is cavernous and distant, choral parts are sometimes lost altogether, and, by turns somber, detached, and overbearing, the music ultimately loses its sense of glowing intimacy and lyric charm. The singers practically bark out the final chorus. A rare disappointment from the usually very-reliable McCreesh. 




9.
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901310 (1992)
Harmonia-Mundi (Gold Series) HMX 2921310 (2011 re-issue)
Harmonia-Mundi HMA 1951310 (2014 re-issue)
Martin Hummel (tenor) (evangelist)
Sussane Ryden (angel)
Ulrich Messthaler (Herod) 
René Jacobs/Concerto Vocale

Beautifully sung and played with superb sound. Unfortunately, many of Jacobs' interpretive choices border on the bizarre, particularly some of the manic tempi in the various intermedia and the final chorus, which come dangerously close to flippant, cartoonish parody. That final chorus is stripped of all dignity, emotion, and meaning in its mad dash towards the finish line. Alas, what could well have been among the greatest versions on record, ultimately goes down as one of the biggest disappointments of the past seven decades. The filler material is no better.




10.
Naxos 8.553514 (1996)
Paul Agnew (tenor) (evangelist)
Anna Crooke (soprano) (angel)
Michael McCarthy (bass) (Herod)
Jeremey Summerly/Oxford Camerata

A pleasingly serviceable performance with fine singing and playing. This reading (again employing the ubiquitous Schoenich edition) harks back to Norrington's classic Argo reading from 1971, with very-similar tempi and overall interpretive approach in the choruses and intermedia. One might ask for a more consistent approach to the instrumental underscoring of the evangelist's part--the 'continuo' drops out for long stretches, leaving the tenor completely unaccomapnied; several chords are plunked down at the beginning of each phrase, and occasionally in conjunction with stresses in the text, but otherwise, the practice does not seem to follow a logical pattern, and the overall effect is at once confusing and rather dull. This notwithstanding, Summerly's is not a 'bad' version by any stretch of the imagination--especially considering Naxos' very attractive price.





11.
Deutsche Harmonia-Mundi 88697575832 (2009 re-issue)
Stephan Genz (baritone) (evangelist)
Elisabeth Scholl (soprano) (angel)
Harry Van der Kamp (bass) (Herod)
Sigiswald Kuijken/La Petite Bande vocal and instrumental ensemble

From 1999, this beautiful recording is a treasure--begging the question why Kuijken and his marvelous players never explored the works of Schütz and his contemporaries in greater depth.* The singing is gorgeous, the narrative unfailingly lyrical, clear and cogent, the tempi nigh-on to perfect, and the whole seems to take on a wondrously seraphic aura in memory. The filler material--all Christmas-related works by Schütz including truly-excellent readings of both the Latin and German Magnificats (SWV 468 and 494 respectively)-- is consistently first-rate.

(*) Kuijken and La Petite Bande recently recorded the Musikalische Exequiem SWV 279-281 (Accent ACC 24299 (2015))





12.
Hänssler Profil PH06028 (2009)
Bernhard Hirtreiter (tenor) (evangelist)
Mona Spägele (soprano) (angel)
Michael Schopper (bass) (Herod)
Munich Heinrich Schütz Ensemble
Wolfgang Kelber/Munich Monteverdi Orchestra

Another excellent reading, beautifully sung and warmly recorded. The choral sections are particularly fine. The generous filler material is quite wonderful, too, showcasing the superb Munich Heinrich Schütz Ensemble.




13
DaCappo 8.226058 (2009)
(also: DaCappo 8.204035 (4-disc set) (2011))
Adam Riis (tenor) (evangelist)
Else Torp (soprano) (angel)
Jakob Bloch Jespersen (bass) (Herod)
Paul Hillier/Ars Nova Copenhagen

A very serviceable--not great-- reading This performance lies somewhere in the interpretive middle halfway between Louis Devos' pedestrian 1986 reading for Erato (#5), and Rene Jacobs' caricatureish-ly frenetic performance for Harmonia Mundi (#9). While there's nothing technically 'wrong' with Hillier's take on the work, the performance seems a bit bland to my ears, especially where pacing and characterization are concerned; this in spite of some undeniably beautiful singing and more than adequate instrumental work. I note, especially, the accompaniment of the recitative passages, in which the ensemble seems to launch each phrase with a short chordal burst, only to leave the evangelist hanging in interminable stretches of naked a cappella space. It gets old--and rather boring-- quite quickly. 





14.
Carus 83.257 (2014)
Georg Poplutz (tenor)
Gerlinde Sämann (soprano)
Felix Schwandtke (bass)
Dresden Chamber Choir
Hans-Christophe Rademann/Dresden Baroque Orchestra

Gorgeously recorded, this intimately scintillating rendition of the 2014 Carus Verlag edition is the finest performance since Sigiswald Kuijken's marvelous 1999 reading for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (#11). The disc is filled out with additional seasonal material, all impeccably sung and played. 


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