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Great review in The Arts Desk (UK)

December 9, 2023

Sebastian Scotney

Hugo Distler: Die Weihnachtsgeschichte Concert Clemens, Aarhus/Carsten Seyer-Hansen (OUR Recordings)
What a wonderful and completely affecting piece. Written in 1933, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (the nativity story) for a capella choir and four soloists performing six roles by Hugo Distler (1908-1942), gets a lot of performances in the Germanic world: it has gone through 21 reprints since Bärenreiter first published it in 1975. Distler’s life story was tragic. To keep going, to keep working, to keep writing church music and to remain inventive under the Nazis was a circle which it was impossible for him to square. He dealt with the impossible pressure for nearly a decade, but ended up taking his own life on All Saints Day in 1942 at the age of just 34. The resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself would be incarcerated six months later, wrote a beautiful condolence letter to Distler’s widow saying it was impossible to know Distler’s work and to hear of his death without everything one knows being changed forever.
The unifying thread in Distler’s forty-minute work is a series of seven beautifully wrought chorale variations on the hymn “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen”. The remarkable thing about this new recording from Denmark is how expressive and yet how relatively unsentimental it can be. The choir Concert Clemens from Aarhus give us Distler’s chromaticism in a particularly candid and unadorned way, asserting the balance of the parts, rather than allowing the listener to wallow in the top line. Even the best of the German recordings (by the Artesinus Ensemble from 2015) has a tendency to sugar-coat.
Distler is always rhythmically inventive too. He has taken the model of the Passions for unaccompanied choir by Heinrich Schütz, works he clearly knew in very great depth, and for Die Weihnachtsgeschichte has viewed them through a twentieth-century prism. This fine new version from Denmark is good, but it also opens up the tantalising prospect of more to come, of what a top-flight UK professional choir might one day make of this feast of invention and choral delight. December 9th.2023 Sebastian Scotney

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