Choral concerts after hymns by Luther, Nicolai and others
Gli Scarlattisti, [Capella Principale,] Jochen Arnold
This CD is a product of the Reformation anniversary, and is devoted to elaborate settings of chorales, with texts mainly by Luther, by Michael Praetorius. His German Magnificat is the centerpiece, and the collection begins and ends with settings of well-known chorales Wie schön leuchtet die Morgenstern and Wachet auf by Nicolai. The order of the pieces chosen seems somewhat arbitrary rather than following a scheme like the Liturgical Year, for example; Arnold gives us a rationale in his liner notes, but I am not convinced.
The singing is frequently charming – listen to the two sopranos with the pair of violins in the opening of Nun freut euch (5), though this number is pitched slightly higher than is comfortable for one of them, and the male alto in Halleluja Christ ist erstanden is below par – but not up to the clarity and blend we expect these days for music of this period from such groups as Vox Luminis or the Gesualdo Consort. Gli Scarlattisti (220.127.116.11) was founded by Jochen Arnold in 1995, and from the photo in the booklet I imagine that many of them are the founder members. And while perfectly competent in this music, the sound of the full choir sometimes overbalances the instrumental group, who are miked as if placed in a strictly ‘accompanimental’ role instead of being treated as equal partners. This treatment gives us a stylistically slightly old-fashioned feel of soloists, choir and accompaniment instead of being at the forefront of today’s HIP.
That said, I found much to enjoy – not least being the value of hearing a whole recital of these rich and inventive polychoral settings. I would have been helped by some more detailed notes on pitch and tuning – I suspect that the pieces were being performed at A=465, which is why the sopranos sounded occasionally beyond their comfort zone – as well as the instrumental scoring of each verse. And the single organ was a small box organ, I think. I hope we may get more Praetorius this Reformation year, and it would be good if Vox Luminis did a companion CD to their fine Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: Luther and the Music of the Reformation which in performance terms is in a different class to this worthy but rather dull performance.