New 5 stars review in Fanfare
November 6, 2023
An exquisitely performed choral work by Hugo Distler
DISTLER Weihnachtsgeschichte Carsten Seyer-Hansen, cond; Adam Riis (ten); Concert Clemens OUR 6.220684 (40:15 )
Hugo Distler (1908–1942) was a German composer who wrote music avoiding not only the trends of Modernism but of Romanticism as well. A practicing church organist, he admired above all the music of Heinrich Schütz, and a casual listener could be forgiven for mistaking his Christmas Story (Weihnachtsgeschichte) for being by Schütz. Close listening, however, reveals just enough characteristics of the music’s 20th-century origins, about which more below.
Distler’s story is a depressing one. Born in Nuremberg, he was raised by his grandparents after his mother deserted the family to live with a man from Chicago. After he had studied composition and organ at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1927 to 1931, his grandfather died, and Distler’s financial support ran out. He took a job as organist at St. Jacobi Church in Lübeck and began composing religious choral works.
In 1933 Distler joined the Nazi Party, seeing it as a requirement to gain employment, and he was shortly appointed head of the chamber music program at the Lübeck Conservatory. In 1935 he composed this choral narrative of the Nativity story. He had supporters in musical and academic quarters in Germany, but the Nazi officials did not like his inward-looking, contemplative style, which certainly did not allow for celebratory odes to the glories of National Socialism. The Nazis also mistrusted religious groups. As a result, the term Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) was applied to Distler’s work, and the government never ceased giving him trouble.
The Esslinger Singakademie that he headed was dissolved after he failed to apply for the proper permits for a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. He also lived in fear of being drafted into the army, a fate he kept avoiding but felt was closing in on him. On November 1, 1942, at the age of 34, he committed suicide.
His Weihnachtsgeschichte is intimate, deeply devout music. The work is for a cappella choir and a tenor soloist in the role of the Evangelist. One of the ways that the listener can identify Dister’s music as belonging to the 20th century instead of the 17th is the irregular pattern of his phrases, which are not confined to bar lines or to a fixed length of four, six, or eight beats. This gives the music an unpredictable quality, even s certain edginess, that keeps the listener engaged. Distler’s style has therefore been described as a combination of Schütz and Hindemith, but I hear much more of the former than the latter in it.
Concert Clemens is a 16-singer group founded in Aarhus, Denmark, by their director, Carsten Seyer-Hansen. They manage the difficult task of keeping in tune flawlessly and sing with an ideal blend of voices. Adam Riis sings the role of the Evangelist beautifully and with concentration on the text. The recording was made in Saint Mark’s Church in Aarhus. The church resonance is appropriate for the music, but I think it would have benefited from a little more clarity.
Not everyone will find Distler’s backward-looking style appealing, but I have tried to describe it in in a way that lets you know how you are likely to respond. I found his Weihnachtsgeschichte very beautiful. Henry Fogel, November 6. 2023
Five stars: An exquisitely performed choral work by Hugo Distler