Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie

Claire Lefilliâtre S, Hans-Jörg Mammel T, Chœur de Chambre de Namur, La Fenice, Jean Tubéry
60:25
Christophorus CHR 77404

This is a re-issue of a recording made in 2003 and originally available on K617 but long discontinued. It is paired with Schein’s Mach dich auf, an Advent motet, Weckmann’s Gegrüsset seiest Du, holdselige, an illustrative dialogue between the Angel and Mary at the Annunciation, Schütz’s Magnificat  swv468 and Hodie Christus  swv456. It is a Christmastide programme, with the Weihnachtshistorie  at its heart.

The performance is brightly sung and adequately recorded. The choir of 16 with its hautes-contres is capable of providing the two capellae  for Schütz’s polychoral Magnificat  alongside the favoriti, though they mostly sing as a ‘choir’ – more than one to a part. The Schein is delightful – a five-part OVPP instrumental coro, where two of the lines are vocalised by the soprano and tenor, alternates with a five-voice capella  before combining as they exchange the text of Isaiah’s prophecy “Arise, shine for thy light is come… for behold darkness shall cover the earth”, and illuminates the German background of Schütz’s writing. Weckmann’s Annunciation dialogue between the angel and the girl uses a pair of violins in close imitation to paint the overshadowing of the angel’s wings – though I prefer the Ricercar performance for its cleaner, clearer singing.

Indeed, this is my major reservation: the singing feels slightly dated – rather gushing in places. And there are some curious touches: sometimes in the Weihnachtshistorie  a trombone is used as a basso continuo instrument. I am not sure that we would use a bass instrument in addition to the organ and theorbo these days, and the sustained foghorn sound feels particularly odd. Occasionally, I think they misjudge the tempo: the intermedium  for the shepherds with recorders and fagotto needs to be neater if you take it that fast, but I like their version of the opening Sinfonia  in the Weihnachtshistorie.

The liner-notes are sketchy, but the texts available in German (or Latin), English and French, and all the performers – singers and players – are named.

So I don’t rave about this version, but if you would like the Schein – a vastly underrated composer – this may be the only place you’d find it. Whether you choose to buy this re-issue will depend largely I suspect on whether you like this style, or whether you already have enough performances – René Jacobs, Paul McCreesh, Paul Hillier, Hans-Christoph Rademann among the more recent ones or Holger Eichorn of 1985 and the unsurpassed Andrew Parrott of 1988, still my personal favourite.

David Stancliffe