“Weynacht Gesaenge”: Advent and Christmas in the Renaissance and Early Baroque [TrackList follows] – Stimmwerck – Christophorus CHR 77364 [Distr. by Qualiton], 67:51 *****:
Life around 1600 may have been, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short,” but man, they sure knew how to celebrate the Christmas season—intimately and reverentially. If you’ve had it up to here with a Christmas season that starts right after Halloween and noisily celebrates the hopes of merchants for happy accounts receivable, then here is the album for you. Stimmwerck is a (for very good reason) highly respected German male vocal ensemble: Franz Vitzthum, countertenor; Klaus Wenk and Gerhard Hölzle, tenor; and Marcus Schmidl, bass-baritone. They are joined, for just one number, by soprano Nele Gramß, the penultimate one, Thomas Stoltzer’s model of Renaissance polyphony, O admirabile commercium. Elsewhere in the program, they’re tastefully accompanied by lute and percussion (Christoph Eglhuber), organ (Michael Ebert), and harp (Reinhild Waldek), lute and organ having the odd solo here and there. Joyful, yes. A joyful noise—hardly.
Interspersed with the Renaissance and Baroque compositions are a number of Gregorian chants that add to the air of austere beauty the whole program maintains. But along with these anonymous pieces are Christmas hymns still sung in churches today: Praetorius’s lovely Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen, Esaias Reusner’s In dulci jubilo, Praetorius and Schein’s Vom Himmel hoch. Then, too, there’s the tender Joseph, lieber Joseph mein by Leonhard Schröter. If you’ll hear “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” a hundred times this season, it’s a shame that about ninety-nine of those times couldn’t be preempted by Schröter’s little gem. When I was in graduate school, our choral group presented these works in a Christmas program; our renditions were probably an acceptable offering to the season, but here, from Stimmwerck, we have voices of rare beauty plus heavenly harmonization.
The Christophorus engineers provide sound that perfectly balances intimacy with a churchly ambience. Even the artwork is just perfect for the occasion: Lorenzo Lotto’s Adoration of the Shepherds, with its bittersweet foreshadowing of the Passion. I can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas Eve than in the company of Stimmwerck and friends.