Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) conducting his oratorio "Seven Gates of Jerusalem" at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, in 2001. Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

Sunday, December 17, 2017

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

In 1839 the Hamburg theologian and pedagogue Johann Hinrich Wichern had an epoch-making idea. Because the children of an orphanage he had founded kept asking him when it would be Christmas at last, he mounted nineteen small red candles and four big white ones on a wagon wheel. The Advent Wreath was born. Not only does this invention, as simple as it is profound, make it possible to visualise the Advent season as a time of increasing illumination; moreover, the circle of lights that ends up fully closed expresses the course of the Christmas story itself: starting from a certain gloom, more and more characters and events gradually appear before us. Each element is significant in itself, but it is only when we take in the overall picture that the Christmas message is conveyed in all its fullness and clarity – just as a closed circle expresses perfection.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472-1553), Nativity, c.1520
Three hundred years before that date, in 1520 to be precise, Lucas Cranach the Elder painted the picture known as "The Nativity". It is fascinating how this masterpiece corresponds to the idea of the Advent Wreath. The individual motifs form a perfect unity. Viewers are invited to let their eyes wander over it, to devote their attention to a detail, to linger over an idea, so that in the end they have explored the Christmas message as a whole. And many people will find that their eyes have made a circular motion. This CD by the RIAS Kammerchor is called "Christmas". All the subtlety of its arrangement of works lies in the fact that this simple title conceals that same profound intellectual and spiritual process whereby the image of Christmas itself emerges from a circular movement of eyes and mind. The hymns and motets – from the straightforward chorale to the most ambitious compositions – create a tableau very much akin to Lucas Cranach's painting.

The frame. Felix Mendelssohn's motet Frohlocket ihr Völker auf Erden forms the programmatic opening and sets out the elaborate, glittering frame within which the picture will subsequently take shape. Switching between eight-part and bichoral textures, Mendelssohn generates a thoroughly Christmassy splendour, evoking brass instruments, in the second of the Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr (Six anthems for the church year) Op.79. The frame is in place – now for the picture.

Night and light. Night is the defining mood of the Christmas season. It creates an aura of possibility, and is the moment when wishes and dreams are formulated. At the same time it is a symbol of uncertainty and affliction. Night is literally and symbolically the background against which Christmas can be fulfilled as the coming of light. And the constant recurrence of night reminds us that light must be won again and again.

Four works explore the night that precedes Christmas in all its shadings, allowing some isolated lights to flare up. The hymn Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen appears here in a setting by Uwe Gronostay, who was principal conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor for many years. In a style of tempered modernism, Gronostay builds around the chorale melody in the bass layers of sound that give the work as a whole a pensive, introverted character. Only occasionally does the joy of Christmas appear in melismas. In this somewhat subdued dimension, Gronostay was perhaps paying tribute to the genesis of the hymn. Jochen Klepper wrote its words on 18 December 1937. In this context, night is also a complex symbol of the ascendant Nazi regime that threatened Klepper himself. And the promised light becomes an existential longing for redemption and liberation. Klepper's wife was Jewish, and he steadfastly refused to dissolve the marriage. In December 1942, the couple committed suicide. The early Baroque counterpart to this modern Christmas hymn was written by Johann Eccard, who depicted the contrast of darkness and light, laden with rich promise, in music of artful simplicity in Ich lag in tiefer Todesnacht.

The Romantic era was the age of subjectivity and exploration of inner emotional worlds and the landscapes of the soul. With its sensuous sonorities, its rich colours, and its eminently Romantic arcs of tension, Max Bruch's In der Christnacht presents the festival of Christmas as a way of overcoming one's own inner darkness. Bruch had two explicit models: Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms. The latter's well-known variations on O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf not only make subtle aesthetic and biographical connections with Praetorius, Mendelssohn, and Bruch, but also let us see the (night) sky in a new perspective. With an almost madrigalian diversity of forms, Brahms achieves a vivid portrayal of the various natural phenomena, colours, and metaphors of the Baroque Advent hymn.

Departure. Brahms's exuberant, ecstatic final fugue introduces a new notion into the Christmas picture: from the idea of and longing for the coming of light emerges the injunction to become active ourselves, to follow the Christmas message or help to spread it. There is scarcely another group of protagonists of the Nativity story that better embodies this departure, this dynamism, than the shepherds. The five-part Nun liebe Seel, nun ist es Zeit by the early Baroque master Johann Eccard is situated on the spiritual and symbolic horizon of the shepherds. On the one hand, it sings of an urge and a certain joyful restlessness at the prospect of darkness being overcome. Now the watchword has become "It is high time". On the other hand, that wish will be granted after all temporality has been suspended: "That thy countenance / And thy splendid light / We may ever behold".

Mary. Just as contemplation of the Virgin Mary leads to the heart of the Nativity, so Hans-Christoph Rademann and the RIAS Kammerchor place the Mother of God in their picture in a wide array of colours and forms. The manifold ways in which she is portrayed and venerated here range from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, from moving (in both senses) chorales to modern soundscapes whose meditative character seems to still all movement. Common to all six works in this section of the picture is their permeation by a quasi-mystical sense of wonder. The connection between the image of the departing shepherds and the kneeling Virgin is made by Johann Eccard in the well-nigh classic chorale setting Übers Gebirg Maria geht. Arvo Pärt has developed the beauty of the archaic into a personal style respected the world over. Inherent in his Magnificat is the possibility of retracing the mystery of Jesus' birth in emotional terms. While Pärt's music expands in space, Anton Bruckner can be viewed as an architect in sound who erected in his compositions sacred edifices as sublime as they are delicate. Similarly founded on Catholicism, yet fascinating in the way it seems to float free of all foundations, is the music of Francis Poulenc. His musical contemplation of the Mother of God is based on a nearly thousand-year-old text that he set in 1941, in a form in which the desire for Messianic salvation from the present too seems constantly to resonate.

Rejoicing and consummation. The idea of a prayerful Mary, gracious and delicate, is coupled in the world of Christmas emotions and imagery with another, quite different topos, namely a boundless jubilation, often based on rhythms that can be assimilated with the movement of rocking a newborn child. Here it is Michael Praetorius and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck who give the signal for joy to be unconfined. Night and light, departure and arrival, calm grace and almost childlike joy come together in this recording to produce a comprehensive picture that strikes our ears as a kind of painting in sound. Our contemplation of it comes to an end with the famous In dulci jubilo, in which the Christmas message "shines like the sun". And it also blossoms like a rose – until finally in Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros entsprungen the brightness has driven away "all darkness".

Reflection. In a sense, Francis Poulenc's Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël appear as an intellectual and emotional echo of this exploration of musical iconography. In the context of this "concept album", they offer a kind of compendium of all those aspects, emotions and facets that go to make Christmas what it is. And when, at the end, Stille Nacht is sung, it is a night now transformed, which, stripped of all its menace, has become a trusted place of arrival.

Oliver Geisler

[The video was removed for "copyright reasons"]

Christmas! Noël! Weihnachten!

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
1. Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden, Op.79/1

Uwe Gronostay (1939-2008)
2. Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen

Johann Eccard (1553-1611)
3. Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht

Max Bruch (1838-1920)
4. In der Christnacht, Op.60/1

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
5. O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, Op.74/2

Johann Eccard
6. Nun liebe Seel, nun ist es Zeit
7. Über's Gebirg Maria geht

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
8. Magnificat

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
9. Ave Maria
10. Virga Jesse

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
11. Salve Regina

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
12. Ave maris stella

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)
13. Hodie Christus natus est

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
14. In dulci jubilo
15. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen

Francis Poulenc
Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël
16. i. O magnum mysterium
17. ii. Quem vidistis pastores dicite
18. iii. Videntes stellam
19. iv. Hodie Christus natus est

Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929)
20. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

RIAS Kammerchor
Direction: Hans-Christoph Rademann

Cover: Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), c.1538

Recorded in January 2013 at Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem

harmonia mundi 2013

(HD 1080p – Audio video)

RIAS Kammerchor (Photo by Matthias Heyde)

Founded in 1948 under the auspices of "Radio in the American Sector", the RIAS Kammerchor played an important role in the revival of post-war musical life in Berlin. The core of its repertoire is the music of the Baroque era, together with the modern classics and the music of today. It swiftly acquired an international reputation for premiering new works by such composers as Penderecki, Reimann, Kagel, Gundermann, and Tan Dun.

After Uwe Gronostay, Marcus Creed, and Daniel Reuss, Hans-Christoph Rademann has directed the ensemble since 2007, in close collaboration with Concerto Köln, the Freiburger Barockorchester, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, and such conductors as Frans Brüggen, Roger Norrington, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, René Jacobs, and Philippe Herreweghe. Since 1994 the RIAS Kammerchor has been a member of the ROC (radio orchestras and choirs), supported by Deutschlandradio, the German federal government, the state of Berlin, and Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.

Hans-Christoph Rademann
(Photo by Matthias Heyde)
Since the 2007-2008 season Hans-Christoph Rademann has been chief conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor. He grew up in a family of Kantors, and during his training as a choral and orchestral conductor at the Musikhochschule in Dresden he already founded the Dresdner Kammerchor, with which he made a reputation both in Germany and abroad, and which he still directs today. Concert tours have taken Hans-Christoph Rademann to the main international musical centres.

A key element in his activities is early music, and especially the musical history of Dresden. As a result he has given many modern premieres of works by Zelenka, Hasse, and Heinichen, which were also successfully released on CD. In the field of contemporary music he launched a composition contest in 2006.

In 2000 Hans-Christoph Rademann was appointed professor of choral conducting at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden. Since the summer of 2013 he has also been director of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart.

Texts and photos: CD Booklet

See also

Christmas with the Faces of Classical Music

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