Great review in IONARTS (US)
November 15, 2023
Charles T. Downey
Briefly Noted: Distler's Modern Christmas Oratorio
by Charles T. Downey | Wednesday, November 15, 2023
This recording of Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, while not the first, is the one that finally made me study this sadly lesser-known work. Many choral musicians, myself included, know Distler's austere arrangement of the late medieval tune "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." This larger piece for unaccompanied SATB choir uses that tune to unify its 40 minutes of music: many verses of it are sung, interwoven with the Gospel account of the Nativity, sung in chant-like unaccompanied recitative by several soloists.
In this sense, the piece is akin to one of Bach's chorale cantatas, just without solo arias, but it also has much in common with the sacred music of Heinrich Schütz. The ingenuity of the chorale device reaches its climax when the chorale is touchingly interwoven with the part of the dialogue where Mary sings the words now known as the Magnificat, as if all souls ever born are present in that moment to praise Mary's submission to God. Shortly after, in another brilliant moment, there is a verse with the basses on a lullabye ostinato ("Eia, eia, eia"), soothing the newborn Jesus laid in the manger.
The Evangelist, on this disc the refined tenor Adam Riis, gets the bulk of the recitative between choruses, with other singers from the choir appearing as the angel Gabriel (high soprano), Mary and Elizabeth (mezzo-sopranos), and Herod and Simeon (basses). The main competition for this disc is the 2015 recording by the Athesinus Consort Berlin, conducted by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, who is also the editor of the critical edition of the score that appeared the same year (Carus-Verlag, 2015). Individual soloists may be slightly better on one disc or the other, but the overall performance of the Danish choir Concert Clemens on this new disc, directed with great sensitivity by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, is more moving. In particular, the disc's resonant sound preserves the sense of hearing it in an open space with acoustic ring, the Skt. Markus Kirken in Århus, where it was captured last year.
Distler composed this gorgeous piece of modern sacred music in 1933, as his life became entwined with the fate of the Nazi party. Born in Nuremberg, the young German composer had done collegiate studies at Leipzig Conservatory but was forced to withdraw from them for financial reasons in 1931. He took a job as organist at the church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck and got married in 1933. That same year he joined the Nazi party and left written records, documented by historians, showing his support for the regime. Distler rose to better positions in Stuttgart and eventually Berlin, but the Nazi party eventually turned on him, labeling his music "degenerate" and threatening to conscript him into military service. In 1942, at the age of 34, he committed suicide in Berlin.