Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie; Auferstehungshistorie
01 February 2010
International Record Review
The comparison recordings are just a small sample of discs containing one or both of these, two of Schütz's most popular works. Excellent performances are also available directed by Louis Devos (both works), Manfred Cordes (Easter Story), Robert King (Christmas Story), Philippe Pierlot (Easter Story), Andrew Parrott (Christmas Story), Frieder Bernius (both works), Jeremy Summerly (Christmas Story) and René Jacobs (both works). Their popularity is unsurprising as they are the most accessible works in which may be heard Schütz's great genius in combining Italian exuberance with profound Lutheran piety. The two works have several features in common and are not infrequently paired on disc or in concert. Both are narrated by a tenor Evangelist and adhere closely to the gospel narratives of their respective stories. Both combine solo, choral and colourful instrumental writing in endlessly engaging ways. Each of the histories sort of mini-oratorios relates joyous events in music of triumphant beauty. In short, they are among the most lovable such works of the seventeenth century.
Yet there are some important differences between them too. For a start, they were composed about 40 years apart. The Christmas Story dates from the early 1660s and without doubt is a work of the High Baroque the influence of 'sacred histories' by Italian masters such as Carissimi and Luigi Rossi is clear. The Easter Story combines the styles of the Early Baroque Schütz's teacher Gabrieli and his later model, Monteverdi with older Renaissance traditions of ensemble improvisation. In the Christmas Story, the Evangelist is accompanied merely by continuo instruments. In the Easter Story, he is aurally surrounded by a consort of viols, which in his preface the composer encourages to improvise divisions ('passagi according to the practice of faux bourdon, which produces a fine effect').
In the present recording, the differences are underlined by the use of two different tenors as the Evangelist, which is by far the largest role on both works. Adam Riis sings the part in the Christmas Story and Johann Linderoth in the Easter Story. Both have youthful, clear voices and are preferable in this respect to the slightly tired-sounding Christoph Prégardien on the recent Berlin Classics recording. Riis is a Lieder singer, while Linderoth performs lute songs. These repertory preferences may explain why Linderoth is marginally the better choice in Schütz. Unlike Linderoth, Riis tends to end musical phrases or long notes with a small touch of vibrato, which is probably more suited to Schubert than Schütz. Both sing very intelligently and with great sensitivity to text and deliver much smoother performances than the somewhat choppy Hans-Jörg Mammel on K617. Of all the excellent tenors who have recorded the Evangelist in one or both works, however, none can match the Belgian Jan Van Elsacker, who combines a young, light voice with intense dramatic impulse, which holds the listener spellbound. The lesser roles on the new Danish recording are very well performed. Soprano Else Torp, as the Angel in the Christmas Story, may not have quite the effortless brilliance of Susanne Rydén (Berlin Classics) or Claire Lefilliâtre (K617), but she is preferable to the slightly tremulous Cécile Kempenaers (Zig-Zag).
Ars Nova Copenhagen may be slightly too large for works of this period but none the less performs the choral passages with admirable litheness and lightness. The playing of Concerto Copenhagen, here in chamber disposition, is excellent, with some superbly ornamented cornetto playing by Lene Langballe. Instrumentally, the only disappointment is a surprisingly lacklustre contribution by Hille Perl's consort Sirius Viols. As noted, the composer encouraged the viols to give full range to their fantasy in improvising divisions, but Perl and colleagues do so only tepidly. Akadêmia's gamba players (Zig-Zag), by contrast, take up the composer's invitation with gusto.
This is an exceptionally well-recorded disc and Paul Hillier directs both works with obvious insight and affection. It belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting Schütz lover ideally with the two outstanding Akadêmia recordings (at least) sitting next to it.