This review was posted at the San Jose Mercury News on December 17 2011.
Everything but the sermon.
Other than that, it’s the full package this weekend as the Magnificat Baroque Ensemble re-creates Christmas Vespers at the Dresden Court Chapel circa 1660. Friday’s rendering in Palo Alto was a gleeful holiday present for early-music lovers, unleashing sounds of sackbut and curtal (distant relatives of trombone and bassoon), while bringing forth German composer Heinrich Schütz’s “Christmas Story,” a setting of the Gospel narrative.
Schütz’s wondrous piece — quasi-operatic — was the centerpiece not only of the court’s service back in 1660; it also was the centerpiece of a 1992 program by Magnificat, during its inaugural season in the Bay Area. And just as Warren Stewart, the group’s artistic director, conducted the performance in 1992, he led it Friday. He was surrounded onstage at First United Methodist Church by 13 instrumentalists and eight singers, including bright-voiced German tenor Martin Hummel, passionately singing the role of the Evangelist, as he did in 1992.
The program — which repeats at other venues through Sunday — is a neat alternative to the many performances of Handel’s “Messiah” that crop up at this time of year. With help from the Whole Noyse instrumental ensemble (purveyors of sackbuts, etc.) and the Sex Chordae Consort of Viols (violas da gamba of assorted sizes), Magnificat is adding much needed variety to the musical holiday season. (Now in its 20th season, it also is honoring the 35th anniversary of the San Francisco Early Music Society, which co-produced the 1992 program.)
Friday’s performance wasn’t immaculate. But it was vivacious, filled with the many colors and tangy flavors of Schütz’s scoring of “Weihnachtshistorie,” (“Christmas Story”), which had its “premiere” in Dresden around 1660. One could follow the lively flow and sway of the piece just by watching Stewart’s body language; clearly, this program is a labor of love for the group’s director, who moved not long ago to Berlin, Germany, and flies in for Magnificat’s programs.
This one began with a processional chant — a medieval hymn — that led to a setting of Psalm 122 by Vincenzo Albrici, filled with hopping syncopations. Stewart, who transcribed this charming piece for what probably was its first performance in centuries, explained in a pre-concert talk that Italian music became commonplace in Dresden, where Schütz was court composer from 1617 until his death in 1672. The court was a musically open-minded place where the ensemble came to feature many Italian Catholic and German Lutheran musicians.
Friday in Palo Alto, as in Dresden long ago, the Psalm gave way to Schütz’s “Christmas Story,” based on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Like an opera, it assigns singers to the various roles: the Angel, the Shepherds, the High Priests, identifying each character or group with specific instrumental combinations. The sackbuts usher in the high priests. The cornett (an early wind instrument, blown like a trumpet) accompanies pronouncements by Herod, whose parts were richly sung by bass Peter Becker.
Soprano Andrew Rader brought much urgency to the role of the Angel. But the night’s consistent standout was Hummel, singing the Evangelist’s narrative in operatic recitative style and imparting lovely interpretive touches throughout. As an example, with each mention of Mary’s name, he dramatically slowed the music to bring out its ethereal qualities, allowing it to open like a flower.
Organist Katherine Heater made similar contributions: When Hummel sang of gold and frankincense, she made a point of playing golden tones, high on the keyboard. And then there is the composer, of course, who dapples the score with wondrous touches. As the Evangelist sings of “lamentations and weeping, and great mourning,” the music moves downward in half steps, an ageless lament.
After the concluding chorus to “Christmas Story” — a swaying dance in triple time — Friday’s quasi-service moved on to a lively Reformation chorale, followed by additional settings of service music by Schütz.
Next, Pier Francesco Cavalli’s setting of the Magnificat energized the ensemble with its almost lush word painting and dancing rhythmic motion. And the night concluded with the Benedicamus Domino, elaborately harmonized by Samuel Scheidt.
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