O Jesulein – A German Baroque Christmas Oratorio
rec. 2021, Namur, Grand Manège, Belgium
Texts and translations available online
RICERCAR RIC444 
This is an interesting concept: the creation of an imaginary Christmas oratorio using twenty works (or parts thereof) by fourteen different composers to tell the Christmas story. It pays tribute to the founder of the German oratorio tradition, Heinrich Schütz, in the year of the 350th anniversary of his death. The composers chosen, some well-known, others not, were contemporaries of Schütz or those in the next couple of generations who followed his lead. Many of the chosen pieces come from the Düben Collection, a huge assemblage of Baroque music from all over Europe, put together by three generations of the Dübens who were Kapellmeisters at the Swedish Royal Court from 1640 to 1720. It is less than a month since I reviewed a disc of instrumental music from this same source (review).
I probably wouldn’t have requested this disc for review, had it not been for the name of the ensemble performing it. My previous encounter with Clematis (in its instrument-only guise) in works by Vitali father and son was a resounding success (review), so I decided to give this a go, especially as it seemed no one else in the reviewing team was going to pick it up.
The last composer of this group to die did so in 1712, meaning that the musical styles on display are early Baroque, smaller in scale and less demonstrative than those of similar works by JS Bach and Handel. The performance group comprises only fourteen, nine instrumentalists and five singers in solo and choir roles. Some early instruments such as the schawm, crumhorn and racket add to the “early” feel.
Some of the little-known composers remain little-known for a good reason, but I was particularly impressed by the Nascitur Immanuel of David Pohle (1624-1695), a student of Schütz. At over eight minutes, it is the longest movement in the work, and employs all five singers. It is described in the booklet as a cantata, and begins with an impressive sinfonia. Andreas Hammerschmidt, born in Bohemia, musically trained in Freiburg, was a very prolific composer whose most significant surviving works were sacred “narratives”, and clearly the compilers of this oratorio found much useful for the Christmas story as five of the movements are by him. It would not be a German Baroque collection without a Bach: here the family is represented by Johann Christoph Friedrich, a great uncle of JS, a chorale from a cantata of his closes the oratorio.
There are three purely instrumental movements. Johann Schelle’s is a fantasia based on the well-known chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (which JSB used in one of his Christmas cantatas). Another, by Buxtehude, features the unusual combination of two recorders, bassoon and zimbelstern. The latter is a small “toy” instrument, consisting of several small bells mounted on a rotating disc, which allows them to be struck continually; they were very common accessories of German Baroque organs. The third is by a composer seemingly so obscure the booklet notes don’t even acknowledge him – Samuel Capricornus – yet his is a name I did recognise, from a favourite recording of early German baroque chamber music Das Partiturbuch (review). They serve more as introductions to the arias that follow them, rather than standing out as individual pieces.
Overall, the mood is quite restrained; there is little that is overtly celebratory, and this surprised me a little. It is, after all, the story of the birth of Christ, not his death. Perhaps the most exultant is Praetorius’s Puer natus in Bethlehem, which is essentially a Hallelujah chorus (but don’t imagine anything Handelian). The closing chorale, which also employs the zimbelstern, is described in the booklet as “particularly festive”; I think that the adjective I would have chosen is “reverential”.
I am not well versed in vocal practices of the early German Baroque, so can only say that the singers seem to acquit themselves well. The instrumentalists of Clematis are as good as I remember them from the Vitali recording.
The printed version of the booklet in three languages concentrates solely on the composers and the music, in contrast to many I have read recently, where more space is expended on the performers. That’s not to say that the latter are of no interest, but their biographical information is almost always on the web (indeed, in my experience, what goes in the booklet is often a direct copy from their website). The printed booklet indicates that the texts and translations are available at the Outhere Music website, but it turns out that you need to create an account to be able to access them. Sorry, but that isn’t good enough. While I’m sure there is no financial requirement with the account, I didn’t go through the process as I don’t believe it should have been necessary. If you have access to the Naxos Music Library, or if you purchase this as a download, then you do get a synopsis of the story (as told here) and the texts and translations in the pdf version of the booklet.
There are a couple of production issues, one of which does impinge, albeit briefly, on the musical enjoyment. Near the end of one of the Hammerschmidt movements, Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh (track 14), the tenor’s voice wobbles very badly for a few seconds. I can’t believe it is a deliberate choice by the singer so can only assume it is a fault in my disc or (hopefully not) the master. Also the spine of the cardboard sleeve shows the wrong disc title – it reads “Johannes Martini – Le Miroir de Musique” which is an earlier Ricercar release.
One might have imagined that such a disparate selection could have suffered from too much variation in style, but that isn’t the case. I expect that this is due to careful curation of the programme, but there is a case for thinking that the restrained and reverential nature of almost all the music does detract a little from the enjoyment when considered purely as a listening exercise.
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Wolfgang Carl Briegel
Dies ist der Tag des Fröhligkeit
Fest- und Zeit-Andachten: Maria, gegrüsset seist du
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
Furchtet euch nicht
Freude, Freude, grosse Freude
Dans une etable obscure (Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen)
Pastores currite in Bethlehem
Musicalischer Andachten, Part II: ch mein Herzliebes Jesulein
Ein kleines Kindelein
Puer natus in Bethlehem
O bone Jesu, fili Mariae, SWV 471
Angelus ad Josephum
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BuxWV 223
Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh
Wo ist der neugeborne Konig
Johann Rudolf Ahle
Herr, nun lässest du deiner Diener
Sonata a 8 in A Minor: I. —
Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan?
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach
O Freudenzeit, o wundernacht