Notes and Editorial Reviews
The style of this work hangs around Bach, works through Mendelssohn, and ventures occasionally into Brahms. But its influences don't really matter because it's just so darn appealing, especially if you love Christmas music and can appreciate a work that's built from many familiar tunes and whose predominant feature is its solid, singable, splendid choral sections.
Why isn't this beautiful, finely crafted, and immediately accessible work part of the standard large-scale choral/orchestral Christmas repertoire? Yes, it's an anachronistic and not very original piece - an oratorio in three parts for soloists, choir, children's choir, orchestra, and organ by the relatively short-lived Austrian composer Heinrich von
Herzogenberg (1843-1900), a close friend of Brahms and a Catholic who late in life wrote Protestant church music. The style of this work hangs around Bach, works through Mendelssohn, and ventures occasionally into Brahms. But its influences don't really matter because it's just so darn appealing, especially if you love Christmas music and can appreciate a work that's built from many familiar tunes and whose predominant feature is its solid, singable, splendid choral sections. Herzogenberg had a keen ear for this kind of adaptation, evidenced in numerous examples throughout the oratorio's sensibly-timed 80 minutes. The gorgeous, extended setting of "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen", dramatically introduced by a long tenor recitative, is a masterpiece unto itself. The choral writing, the unusual, delicate harmonic shadings, the skillful, restrained use of orchestral accompaniment, show this derivative composer in one of his more inspired moments.
In the following "Joseph, lieber Joseph mein" the two vocal soloists labor over their lines, defying the written-in lilt and flow, but there's enough working well here, including the fine cello elaborations and elocutions, to give us a sense of the duet's inventive charm (another highlight). There are many other memorable moments--the orchestral "shepherds' music" introduction and following children's chorus in Part 3 (on the tune "Kommt und laßt uns Christum ehren"), the "congregational" chorales scattered throughout (à la Bach), the recitative section for tenor and alto that opens Part 2 ("The angel Gabriel was sent by God") and gently slips into a tender setting of the chorale "Jesus ist ein süßer Nam'" (What a sweet name is Jesus), and the clever little chorus that follows.
The weaknesses in this production are few and are almost exclusively confined to the solo singing, which is surprisingly hit and miss. Tenor Peter Maus has a beautiful quality and handles most of his solos very well, but he displays some discomfort in a few brief visits to the outer reaches of his range. Similarly, soprano Regina Schudel and bass Ernst-Gerold Schramm have decent-sounding voices, but are simply uneven in their technique, and alto Anke Eggers' forced, dark sound adversely affects the facility of her expression. Fortunately, the solo passages are relatively few and even so, none of these shortcomings is enough to notably detract from the overall performance. However, one technical problem certainly will interfere with your ease of listening: annoyingly and inexcusably the work's 34 sections are divided into only three tracks! Heaven forbid you might want to go back and begin listening at a specific place in the piece. The choirs are wonderful and conductor Christian Grube masterfully manages them and his excellent orchestral forces to muster what should be a much better known reading of what should be a much more frequently performed work. (Choral directors should note that there are several choruses here that could nicely stand on their own in a concert.) The recording, reissued from a 1988 Hänssler production, is in fine sound, with full-bodied tuttis and properly balanced solo/chorus and solo/orchestral sections. Highly recommended.
Works on This Recording
Die Geburt Christi, Op. 90 by Heinrich Herzogenberg
Regina Schudel (Soprano),
Ernst Gerold Schramm (Bass),
Anke Eggers (Alto),
Peter Maus (Tenor)
Berlin Bach Collegium,
Berlin Hochschule der Künst Kammerchor,
Written: by 1895; Germany
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