Friday, December 15, 2017

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week 3

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.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) - "Messe de Minuit pour Nöel" H9

Charpentier spent 17 years in service to Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, first cousin to Louis XIV. During that time he wrote an extraordinary amount of music, both for Mlle. de Guise and other nobility who commissioned works. After her death, he entered the Jesuit order and thereafter wrote primarily sacred works. Messe de Minuit pour Nöel was composed around 1690 and is one of Charpentier's best-known works. Woven into the music is ten traditional French carols.

Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815) - Czech Christmas Mass

Music teacher and composer Jakub Jan Ryba wrote his Czech Christmas Mass in 1796. it incorporates traditional Czech carols and uses the Czech language to tell the Christmas story. Performing the work has become a holiday tradition in Bohemia, and is frequently performed throughout Eastern Europe. Although Ryba wrote many masses and pastorales, the Ceská mše vánocní "Hej mistre!" his only work that's still heard today.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Vom Himmel Hoch

Mendelssohn is credited with reviving the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or at least bringing it back into the public consciousness. His deep study of J.S. Bach's music influenced his own work. This was especially true with Mendelssohn's choral works. The Christmas cantata "Vom Himmel hoch" is based on a hymn tune by Martin Luther. The treatment of the tune and the structure of the cantata show Bach's influence. "Vom Himmel hoch" was premiered in 1831 and remains a staple of the repertoire.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) Christmas Eve: Orchestral Suite

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera Noch' pered Rozhdestvom (Christmas Eve) in 1895. It was based on a popular short story by Nikolai Gogla. Rimsky-Korsakov was not the first -- three other composers, including Tchaikovsky -- had based an opera on the tale. The plot involves the Devil stealing the moon on Christmas Eve, and being thwarted by Vakula the blacksmith. It's perhaps least-Christmasy seasonal works in the seasonal repertoire. Rimsky-Korakov later created extracted an orchestral suite from the opera.

Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) - Christmas Cantata

American composer Daniel Pinkham studied with Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, and E. Power Biggs. Pinkham was served as an organist and choir director. Although he's best remembered for his sacred compositions, Pinkham composed for orchestras, chamber groups, and solo music as well. The 1957 Christmas Cantata is one of Pinkham's most popular works.

Otto Albert Tichý (1890-1973) - Missa pastoralis in honorem Jesu Infantiis in Praga

Czech composer Otto Albert Tichý studied with Vincent d'Indy. In addition to teaching and composing, Tichý was also a professional organist. Tichý did extensive research on Gregorian chant, and was an expert on church music in general. Most of his compositions are sacred works for choirs, or solo organ music. His "Missa pastoralis in honorem Jesu Infantiis in Praga" is one of the few Tichý compositions still performed today.

#ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week #1
#ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week #2

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Night of Saint Nicholas: A Mediaeval Liturgy for Advent

Performance practices change -- even in the field of early music. In the early 1990s Anonymous 4 burst onto the scene, making medieval music sound vibrant and alive. Other ensembles built upon their success, each with their own take on the repertoire.

"The Night of Saint Nicholas" was originally released in 1998. So how does it hold up after almost two decades? Very well, actually.

The release is a collection of sacred music revolving around Saint Nicolas, most dating from the 13th Century. La Revier and I Cantori Gregoriani deliver performances that are beautiful in their simplicity.

The ambiance of the recording site --  the Church of San Damaso, Modena, Italy -- perfectly matches the music. The reverberation fills the spaces between the notes without blurring them.

I'd almost say these are classic sacred early music performances. There's the ethereal quality essential to the style. Each selection unfolds at its own unhurried pace.

It evokes a sense of timelessness that not only transcends the centuries but the trends of the last 20 years. This release doesn't sound dated at all. Rather, the sound seems as ageless as the legend it celebrates.

The Night of Saint Nicholas
A Mediaeval Liturgy for Advent
La Reverdie; I Cantori Gregoriani
Arcana A 442

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Carl Heinrich Graun: Weihnachtsoratorium - companion to Bach's

Carl Heinrich Graun isn't the best-known German baroque composer, but at the time he was one of the most prominent. Frederick the Great appointed Graun kapellmeister to his court in 1740.

Graun was also one of the major opera composers in Berlin. His Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) was probably written in the late 1730s.

Compared to Johann Sebastian Bach's 1734 Christmas Oratorio, Graun's work seems simpler. There are less counterpoint and more straight-forward choral settings of hymn tunes.

Graun also uses less Biblical text than Bach, preferring contemporary interpretations of the story. While a comparison of the two works might explain why Bach is better-known than Graun today, it's also a little unfair.

Graun was writing for a different audience, and writing in his own style. Taking on its own merits, his Christmas Oratorio is an appealing work that deserves to be heard again. The solos and duets are written in a straight-forward manner, with a minimum of baroque ornamentation.

The center of the work is Paul Gerhardt's 1648 Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How Shall I Leave You). This sturdy Lutheran hymn is heard at the beginning, middle, and end of the oratorio.

There are some contrapuntal choral passages, but they hew to Lutheran clarity. The choral settings, to my ears, seemed closer to Handel than Bach. The soloists for this recording are first-rate. I particularly liked the warm, rounded voice of alto Marian Eckstein.

The Arcis-Vocalisten München and the Barockorchester L’arpa festante have a big, full ensemble sound. This is a well-written work performed with vigor and energy. If you enjoy the large choral works of Handel, Telemann, and, yes, even Bach, you should find much to like here. I know I did.

Carl Heinrich Graun: Weihnachtsoratorium 
Monika Mauch, soprano; Marion Eckstein, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Raimund Nolte, bass 
Arcis-Vocalisten München; Barockorchester L’arpa festante; Thomas Gropper, conductor 
Oehms Classics OC 1876