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New Great 5 stars review in Fanfare

November 8, 2023

Kim Meltzer

DISTLER Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, op. 10  Carsten Seyer-Hansen, cond; Adam Riis (Evangelist); Concert Clemens  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220684 (SACD 40:17 )

The German composer Hugo Distler (1908-1942) completed his work for soloists and a cappella chorus, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story) in 1933. From 1931-7, Distler served as organist at the St. Jacobi Church in Lübeck. There, Distler heard Heinrich Schütz’s St. Matthew Passion, performed at the Church every Good Friday. The Schütz Matthew Passion served as a template for Distler’s Christmas Story, which the composer described as an “oratorio with a chamber music character” (“Oratorium mit kammermusikalishem Charakter”). The Christmas Story begins with an Introduction, a choral setting of the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah (“For to us a child is born…”). The ensuing story of Jesus’s birth is taken from the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. The bulk of that narrative is declaimed by the Evangelist (tenor), while other soloists assume the parts of the Angel, Elisabeth, the Virgin Mary, King Herod, and Simeon. The chorus plays various roles as well, and sing Distler’s setting of the Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” whose verses are interspersed throughout the work as chorales. John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…”), sung by the chorus, concludes Die Weihnachtsgeschichte.
Distler’s setting strikes me as being in the spirit of such works as the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and the Duruflé Requiem. 20th century works all, they wed past and present musical approaches to create music that seems to transcend any particular era. As critic John Alexander Fuller Maitland wrote of the Tallis Fantasia: “The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling. Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new…” Distler’s music is radiantly beautiful, as befits its subject. It is also quite expressive throughout. There is nothing routine or monochromatic about Distler’s setting of the Luke and Matthew narratives. The Evangelist and other soloists are afforded the opportunity to sing with character and expression, in music that at times, is also quite technically demanding. The polyphony in the choruses is delineated with clarity and beauty. It’s a masterful work, and deeply moving.
A new Our Recordings issue features the Danish vocal group, Concert Clemens. They are conducted by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, who formed Concert Clemens in 1997. Tenor Adam Riis performs the part of the Evangelist, while members of the Concert Clemens assume the other solo parts. It’s a most impressive performance in every respect. Concert Clemens sings with a pure, radiant, and marvelously blended tone. The absence of vibrato, impeccably executed, intensifies Distler’s evocation of the past. Adam Riis’s lovely tenor, clear diction, and compelling involvement with the text provide great satisfaction. The other solo parts are sung with distinction. The recording, made in the St. Mark Church in Aarhus, is splendid, a superb realization of a cathedral space without any blurring of musical detail. Full German texts and English translations are included in the CD booklet. An exquisite rendition of a treasurable work. Recommended. Ken Meltzer
Five stars: A beautiful recording of Hugo Distler’s choral work, The Christmas Story

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