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5 stars review in Fanfare

November 4, 2023

Colin Clarke

Five stars
This disc would make a marvellous Christmas gift ... a great release, full of inner beauty.

HUGO DISTLER Die Weihnachtsgeschichte., op. 10  Adam Riis (Evangelist); Carsten Seyer-Hansen, cond; Concert Clemens  OUR 6.220684(40:17) Reviewed from a .wav download: 44.1 kHz/16bit
Short-lived German composer Hugo Distler (1908-1942) was born in Nürnberg and died in Berlin, taking his own life. He was massively influenced by the works of Heinrich Schütz. Distler’s Christmass story (the direct translation of Weihnachtsgeschichte) is scored for four-part a cappella choir and has actually been previously recorded everal times, on an old Eterna LP from 1979 (Thomanerchor under Hans-Joachim Rotzsch) and also on Thorofon on a 1997 release by the Chamber Choir of the University of the Arts Berlin conducted by Christian Grube. Possibly the only easy- to obtain rival is the Athesinus Concert Berlin under Klaus-Martin Bresgott, with Thomas Volle as the Evangelist, on the Carus label.
The Carus begins in an almost tentative fashion in the first movement, “Das Volk, der im Finstern vandelt’ (The people, who wander in darkness); I contrast, the Danish choral group Concert Clemens preserve the music’s delicate nature but never sound thin. The sureness of pitch of each line is firmer, also. The loveliness of the acoustic, so perfectly caught by the OUR engineers, allows the famous chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” to blossom; again, it is fuller and more satisfying than on Carus.
As the Evangelist, Danish tenor Adam Riis is pretty much beyond criticism. He owns a velvet-toned voice, his diction is perfect and, most importantly, there is a real sense of his telling a story. Distler’s writing is striking: a solo soprano represents the angel, pure, celestial herself (Johanna Fårup); the voice from the choir for Mary, Beke Pfann, is lower, fuller. Good though Thomas Volle is for Bresgott on Carus, Riis is one step above (and the choral soloists for the angel and Mary are superior in the Dansh choir, particularly that for the angel). Later in the piece, when the Angel is quoted by the Evangelist at the famous words, “Fürchtet euch nicht” (Be not afraid; the lines are sung by the soprano), Fårup is truly exquisite, as pure as any boy treble.
There are moments of great loveliness in this piece. While Distler models his piece on earlier models, his music should probably be classified as “Neo-Baroque,” and the increased expressivity this brings with it is found full-on in the “Recitative and Chorale” for Mary and choir, “Meine Seele erhebt Gott” (My Soul magnified the Lord). There are other times when Distler’s writing veers towards a sort of Neo-Gregorian Chant, as in the Evangelist’s completely unaccompanied recitative, “Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit” (In those days a decree went out), in which one also appreciates the strength of Riis’ lower register. Somehow, the use of only three-part choir (SAT) gives the ensuing “Das Blümelein so kleine" (The flowers so small) a sense of blissful aerial suspension.
There are subtleties galore. Distler’s response to the words “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe" (Glory to God, in the highest) is no fortissimo blaze of light but more restrained, and yet it glows from within all the more tellingly, the radiance of the harmonies heard in all their glory thanks to the superbly trained Concert Clemens (the Carus recording is particularly poor here in comparison). It is the Concert Clemens’ lightness and sureness of pitch that again allows the Chorus of Shepherds that follows to burst with joy and expectation; and how Distler capitalizes on this by allowing the chorale, “Die Hirten zu der Stunden” (The shepherds travelled forthwith) a sense of linear freedom and gradual opening that surely reflects the warm glow within the shepeheds’ hearts. The choral singing is a joy. Despite the intertwinning lines, one still hears every word. It’s a little miracle of itself in a story about, arguably, one of the great miracles.
Interestingly, the choir’s questions “Where is the King of the Jews?” is set with a sense of mild disquiet rather than unstoppable urgency; similarly, the joy of “Lob her sei Gott” (All Praise to God) in the final stages of the piece is slightly held-back as if to recognize the interiority of the spiritual aspect of the action.
Perhaps the most touching moment is the arriival of Simeon (sung by tenor Søren Tjagvad). Keeping the famous words of the Nunc dimittis unaccompanied somehow gves them extra power, and in turn lends extra weight to teh final chorale, “So singen wir all Amen” (Amen to all our singing), itself adding a sense of symmetry in hearkening back, musically, to “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”. The work ends with a “Beschluß" (Conclusion) taht reminds us that the Christian God gave his only Son with the promise that, believe in him (Him), the reward is everlasting life. One does not have to be Christian to feel the power of this ending. An ending that could easily be spoiled by sopranos who cannot manage Distler’s demands up high (as it were); unsurprisingly by now, Concert Clemens shines. Only the small part of Herod remains, strongly sung by bass Niels Peder Skaarup Gajel.
This disc would make a marvellous Christmas gift. Apart from the take away that Hugo Distler is a most worthwhile composer, there is also the discovery (for me, at any rate) of Adam Riis, who I see has has recently recorded the role of Apollo/.Second Shepherd in Monteverdi’s Orfeo for BIS (Fanfare 46:4), sung in Nielsen’s The Mother (on Dacapo: 44:3) and in recordings of Schütz on the same label (reviewed 34:2). His voice is strong throughout its range with no sense here of strain up top.
A great release, both for composer and the Evangelist here. Recommended. Colin Clarke, November 3.2023

Five stars: This disc would make a marvellous Christmas gift ... a great release, full of inner

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