Nicolas Altstaedt

Nicolas Altstaedt
Nicolas Altstaedt, cellist (b. 1982). Photo by Marco Borggreve

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Christmas Story – Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier (Audio video)






















The story of Christmas begins deep in the past, four thousand winters before the birth of Jesus. In the Garden of Eden, the Devil takes the form of a serpent and tempts Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. She persuades Adam to do likewise. After this Fall from grace, Mankind long awaits the birth of a saviour who can redeem them from their sinful condition.

A boy is born in Bethlehem. We contemplate the strange mystery of God born as a baby and lying in a manger out in the stable among the oxen, cattle, and donkeys.

Meanwhile, an angel appears to shepherds tending their flocks out on the hills, and tells them to go into Bethlehem where they should find and worship the baby Jesus.

Three kings from the East travel over hills and mountains, bearing gifts for the newborn child; a star guides them to Bethlehem. Herod learns that a baby has been born who will become "king" of the Jews. He orders the slaughter of all newborn Jewish male children. The angel Gabriel warns Joseph to take Mary and the child and flee from Herod's men.

Two further incidents are described. While still pregnant Mary went over the mountain to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who though old in years is also pregnant (with St John the Baptist). Mary sings the words we call the Magnificat.

In Jerusalem there is a devout old man called Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit has revealed that he will not die before seeing Christ. While Jesus is still an infant, Mary brings him for presentation in the temple in Jerusalem. Simeon is there and recognises the Son of God and sings the words we call the Nunc Dimittis.

Although most of the music supports the narrative in one way or another, some pieces were chosen specifically for that purpose, particularly the three Baroque dialogues and the various short portions of plainchant. The three concluding items are more general in their mood, two of them reminding us more of the carol-singing tradition than the events behind it, while Gade's lovely Nativity song is a setting of words by Hans Christian Andersen – Denmark's master story-teller.

The dialogues are all drawn from the seventeenth-century Italian repertoire of works which form the nascent "oratorio", where the main purpose is to offer religious inspiration and instruction by telling a story. They are performed by a small group of singers (with continuo accompaniment) who take individual roles, but also at various moments join together as a chorus to introduce or comment upon the narrative. Eventually oratorio became something much larger in scale: Handel's Messiah, the Bach Passions, and many substantial works over the next two centuries for soloists, choir, and orchestra. But in the early seventeenth century oratorio was still essentially devotional chamber music performed (particularly in Rome) at buildings reserved for prayer meetings – themselves called "oratorios".

Sometimes these pieces have special performance directions. In Tomasi's Dum deambularet the Voice of God is marked "to be sung from a hidden position up above the others", and Adam is to be sung "somewhat" hidden. And in Grandi's Missus est Gabriel the duo of heavenly voices is marked "distant and hidden". We have attempted to suggest some of this acoustic choreography in our performances.

I have included a few motets (Byrd, Eccard) and later compositions (Hopkins, Gade, Skempton). Otherwise the carols are drawn primarily from folk traditions in England and the Alpine region on both the German and Italian sides, or are arrangements of venerable melodies such In dulci jubilo, Es ist ein Ros, Personent Hodie.

Finally, I append a favourite poem by my local poet, Thomas Hardy. (I was born and grew up in his "Casterbridge".) Hardy knew all about carols and carol-singing, as we can read in his novel Under the Greenwood Tree and in the numerous other poems and prose sketches of the quasi-Shakespearean rustics in his Mellstock Choir. In The Oxen he evokes those childhood certainties that sometimes resonate down through the years and continue to hold us in thrall – or, as he says, in hope.

Source: Paul Hillier (CD Booklet)



The Christmas Story
told in chant, motets, dialogues & traditional folk carols

ADVENT


1. Rorate coeli desuper – Plainchant

2. Veni veni Emanuel – arranged Paul Hillier
3. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen – arranged Paul Hillier
[1-3: Ars Nova Copenhagen]

4. Dum deambularet Dominus in Paradisum – Biasio Tomasi (fl. 1611)

Dialogue: The garden of Eden: God, Adam and Eve, and the serpent
[Theatre of Voices]

5. Adam lay y-bounden – Howard Skempton (b. 1947)

6. In dulci iubilo – arranged R. L. Pearsall (1795-1856)
[5-6: Ars Nova Copenhagen]


ANNUNCIATION


7. Missus est Gabriel – Alessandro Grandi (1586-1630)

Dialogue: the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear a child
[Theatre of Voices]


NATIVITY


8. Puer natus est – Plainchant

9. O magnum mysterium – William Byrd (c.1540-1623)
[8-9: Ars Nova Copenhagen]

10. Voi ch'ai notturni rai – Giovanni Francesco Anerio (1567-1630)

A pastoral dialogue: The shepherds go to worship the infant Christ
[Theatre of Voices]

11. Dormi, dormi, o bel bambin – arranged Paul Hillier

12. Liebe Hirten – arranged Paul Hillier
13. Andachtsjodler – arranged Paul Hillier
[11-13: Ars Nova Copenhagen]


EPIPHANY


14. We three kings – J. H. Hopkins (1820-1891)

[Theatre of Voices]

15. Videntes stellam – Plainchant

16. Personent hodie – arranged Paul Hillier
[15-16: Ars Nova Copenhagen]


THE HOLY INNOCENTS


17. Herodes iratus – Plainchant

18. Vox in Rama – Plainchant
[17-18: Ars Nova Copenhagen]


EPILOGUE


19. Uebers Gebirg – Johann Eccard (1553-1611)

20. Maria wallt zum Heiligtum – Johann Eccard (1553-1611)
21. The holly and the ivy – arranged Paul Hillier
22. Barn Jesus i en krybbe lå – Niels Gade (1817-1890)
23. We wish you a merry Christmas – arranged Paul Hillier
[19-23: Ars Nova Copenhagen]


Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen

Conductor: Paul Hillier

Cover: Albert Herbert, Mary in the stable, 1991


Recorded in January 2011 at Garnisons Kirk, Copenhagen, Denmark


harmonia mundi 2011


(HD 1080p – Audio video)


Ars Nova Copenhagen (Photo by Magnus Skrede)






















The idea behind this recording was shaped by the English tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols. Like the story of Christmas itself, this tradition had humble beginnings. A thousand years ago, Cornwall (in the southwest of England) was joined to the Diocese of Devon under the Bishop of Exeter. It was only many centuries later – in 1877 – that it was finally given its own diocese once again, this time at Truro. A new cathedral was immediately planned, but while it was being built services had to be held in a temporary wooden building – often referred to as a "hut", but large enough to hold 400 parishioners. This is where, on Christmas Eve 1880, the first service of "Nine Lessons and Carols" was given and, unwittingly perhaps, a new tradition was created.

The service was designed by the Bishop of Truro, E. W. Benson. In the words of his son, the writer A. C. Benson: "My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop". In 1918 the service was adopted at King's College Cambridge by the Dean, Eric Milner-White. In 1928 it was first broadcast by the BBC and it has now become one of the fixtures of Christmas broadcasting around the world.

I have lived in Denmark for nearly ten years. It is a country with a strong sense of tradition beneath the sophisticated veneer of its relaxed modernity, and this manifests itself strongly at the solstices. At midwinter the intense darkness, the crisp cold, and the Danes' addiction to candlelight have made me nostalgic for the Christmas services of my youth. So with Ars Nova Copenhagen we started in 2008 to present our own version of the service – usually as a concert programme in churches rather than as part of the liturgy. It proved very popular and has become part of our annual season. Sometimes the singers give the readings (in Danish, naturally, though some of them have Swedish or Norwegian accents), and sometimes they are given by members of the community. All agree that the music gains an extra dimension by being folded into the spoken narrative, especially when the readings are shared among audience and performers alike. I then thought of making a recording that would include the readings. But in which language (or languages) should they be given? Rejecting the idea of a mixture of many languages (attractive to me, but perhaps not to all) I looked instead for pieces of music that would go some way towards filling out the narrative in a suitable fashion. The following synopsis is drawn from the readings that form part of our presentation. Those familiar with the King's College tradition will notice close resemblances, but also differences – in the latter part especially.

Source: Paul Hillier (CD Booklet)


Paul Hillier (Photo by Magnus Skrede)
The Grammy-award winning ensemble Theatre of Voices was founded by Paul Hillier in 1990. Current projects include music ranging from Dowland, Carissimi, Buxtehude and Bach, to many of today's most eminent composers such as Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, John Cage, Pelle Gudmundsen Holmgreen, and David Lang.

Paul Hillier is from Dorset in England and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. His career has embraced singing, conducting, and writing about music. Earlier in his career he was founding director of the Hilliard Ensemble, and subsequently founded Theatre of Voices. He has taught in the USA at the University of California campuses at Santa Cruz and Davis, and from 1996-2003 was Director of the Early Music Institute at Indiana University. He was Principal Conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (2001-2007) and has been Chief Conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen since 2003. His recordings, over a hundred CDs including seven solo recitals, have earned worldwide acclaim and won numerous prizes. His books about Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, together with numerous anthologies of choral music, are published by Oxford University Press. In 2006 he was awarded an OBE for services to choral music. In 2007 he received the Order of the White Star of Estonia, and was awarded a Grammy for Best Choral Recording. In 2008 he took up the position of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, and in 2009 was invited to form the new Coro Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal. In 2010 he won a second Grammy (this time in the small ensemble category), for Theatre of Voices' recording of David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion" (which also won a Pulitzer Prize).

Ars Nova Copenhagen is widely recognized as one of the finest vocal groups in Europe. Founded in 1979, the ensemble regularly appears across Europe, and in North and South America, and Asia. Its chief conductor since 2002 is Paul Hillier. At the heart of Ars Nova Copenhagen's work is its equal dedication to early music and new music. Its harmonia mundi début recording, "The Little Match Girl Passion" with music by David Lang received a 2010 Grammy Award. Each season, the group has a composerin-residence: Toivo Tulev (Estonia) in 2007, Bernd Franke (Germany) in 2008, Sunleif Rasmussen (Faroe Islands) in 2009 and Áskell Másson (Iceland) in 2010. The group has its own record label (Ars Nova Records) and is sponsored by the Danish Cultural Ministry.

Source: CD Booklet


Theatre of Voices











See also

Christmas! Noël! Weihnachten! – RIAS Kammerchor, Hans-Christoph Rademann (Audio video)

Orlando di Lasso: Laudate Dominum – Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, Andrew McAnerney (Audio video)

Mary Star of the Sea – Gothic Voices (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)


The Deer's Cry – William Byrd, Arvo Pärt, Thomas Tallis – The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (Audio video)


Psallat ecclesia – Ragnhild Hadland, Schola Solensis, Halvor J. Østtveit (Audio video)


Carlo Gesualdo: Sacrarum Cantionum Liber Primus a 5 voci – Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly (Audio video)


Sacred Salterio: Lamentations of the Holy Week – Miriam Feuersinger, Il Dolce Conforto, Franziska Fleischanderl, Jonathan Pesek, Deniel Perer (Audio video)


Nicolas Gombert: Motets, Vol. II – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)


Nicolas Gombert: Motets, Vol. I – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)


Johannes Ockeghem: Missa L'homme armé, Missa quinti toni – Beauty Farm (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)


In the Midst of Life. Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I – Contrapunctus, Owen Rees (Audio video)


Antoine Busnoys: For the love of Jaqueline (Medieval love songs) – Sylvia Rhyne, Eric Redlinger (Audio video)


In Nativitate Domine: Festliche Weihnachtsmusik – Emma Kirkby, Susanne Rydén, Annegret Siedel (Audio video)


Heinrich Schütz: Christmas Vespers – Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh (Audio video)


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