The portrait of Heinrich Schütz by Christoph Spetner depicts a resolutely sober man; an easy visual fit for the composer of three austere sets from Passion and Haunting Musikalische Exequien.
But The Christmas storyfirst heard at the Dresden court’s Christmas Eve Vespers in 1660, paints another Schütz, a man transforming his German piety and his learning of Italian into a score imbued with brilliance and irony, mystery and fear.
What is The Christmas story on?
The story, declaimed by an evangelist, unfolds the events of the birth of Christ until the return after the flight into Egypt, and is punctuated by eight vocal ‘Intermedia’ – each receives its own instrumental color, and brings in the discourse of the protagonists in vividly imagined relief. The opening and closing choirs act as the exterior panels of an altarpiece framing a nativity scene whose youthful exuberance belies Schütz’s 75 Christmases Past.
The best recordings of The Christmas story by Schutz
René Jacobs (conductor), Martin Hummel (evangelist); Vocal Concerto (1990)
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2921310
When it comes to sifting through the currently available records, the end result proves difficult. But René Jacobs’ warm, spacious but urgent 1990 tale marries the precision and illustrative thrust of an Albrecht Dürer woodcut with the spicy, uplifting joy of a festive Glühwein in a winning way.
Given the importance of the recitative, the choice of the evangelist is crucial and Schütz asks for a “tenor with a good light voice”. Martin Hummel obliges, balancing decorum and engagement in a delivery one moment full of wonder, the next one of indignation. And the supporting continuo is every bit as inventive as you’d expect from Jacobs.
Less expected, perhaps, is the softness of the opening which gives no indication of the lively tempos Jacobs has in store. ‘Ehre sei Gott’ seems to fill the heavens with the roar of angels’ wings, the high-pitched recorders and the Dulcian speed of the shepherds on the way to Bethlehem with a joyful spring, taken up by the lively steps of the Magi, while the dark colors , brass-rich tableau of high priests glows with the dark glow of a Rembrandt. Jacobs’ chorus includes a certain Andreas Scholl, doubled as a shepherd and an angel in a cast that includes Ulrich Messthaler’s imperious Herod and Susanne Rydén’s radiant bringer of good tidings.
More like this
Paul Hillier (conductor), Adam Riis (evangelist); Ars Nova Copenhagen (2008)
Considering Schütz’s Danish expeditions in the 1630s, it’s fitting that Ars Nova Copenhagen took him to heart. And with its more modern, forward-looking check-in and clean Scandinavian “interior design”, Paul Hiller’s management of The Christmas story may well be many people’s first choice.
Its evangelist, Adam Riis, negotiates with consummate skill the fine line between church and stage in the articulation of the story, and he notably strikes at the end where, with nobility and grandeur, Schütz imagines the infant Jesus flourish and grow. Hillier’s relevant tempos and sense of continuity between recitative and intermedia lend a seductive naturalness to a strongly characterized and always fresh reading.
Wolfgang Katschner (conductor), Christoph Prégardien (evangelist); Capella Angelica, Lautten Compagney (2007)
Berlin Classics 0016232BC
Schütz was heavily involved in the emergence of the first German opera: Dafne, created for wedding celebrations held in 1627, but now lost. Driven at breakneck speed by Christoph Prégardien’s scrupulously considered evangelist, Wolfgang Katschner’s narrative, with its painstakingly crafted continuo, most suggests what a Schütz opera might have sounded like.
The immediacy of the show is founded on an invigorating and illuminating interdependence between the voices of Capella Angelica and the instruments of Lautten Compagney. The colors shimmer and shine, the word paint quite jumps off the page, while the majestic Celestial Hosts of Intermedium II are intoxicatingly bright.
Jeremy Summerly (conductor), Paul Agnew (evangelist); Oxford Camera (1995)
With two recommendable economy versions available, even Scrooge himself doesn’t need to give up the seasonal Schütz. Both are by specialist English ensembles, each with a flexible and responsive evangelist. Playing at a higher pitch, The King’s Consort should have a built-in edge when it comes to innate brightness, but the pristine cleanliness sometimes borders on delicacy.
The 1995 Oxford Camerata tale, in fact, has a personality edge too, whether it’s humorously playing the devoted tramp of the wise men or providing an almost Wagnerian opulence to the auto high priests. -important. Although The King’s Consort’s tempos are generally faster, Oxford Camerata’s is the most dramatic reading, uniting finely calibrated storytelling with warm joy.