Notes and Editorial Reviews
Die Geburt Christi
Matthias Beckert, cond; Alexandra Steiner (sop); Barbara Werner (alt); Tilman Lichdi (ten); Benedikt Nawrath (ten); Philipp Gaiser (bs); Michael Bauer (bs); Ökumenischer Hochschulchor Würzburg; Herzogenberg Würzburg O
cpo 777 211 (79:15) Live: Würzburger, Neubaukirche 12/3–4/2005
A commanding, ominous peal of organ fanfare cues the choir, and Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s grand annunciation begins, majestic, high-toned religiosity having been given voice in the composer’s pre-premiere declaration: “For Sunday I’m inviting our dear God,” he wrote to Friedrich Spitta, younger brother of the Bach biographer Philipp, and the man who sang this Christmas oratorio’s tenor part in its first performance in late 1894.
Herzogenberg was tapped by fate several times for a good deal of setbacks and despair in his life, and yet retained a
spirit, even a mischievous one, when it came to his art or any discussion thereof. Spitta commissioned the oratorio that forms the whole of this excellent set under the duress of what he called “preconditions,” namely the personnel and budgetary limitations of his church at Christmas time, with most of the seasonal expenditure earmarked for a Bach cantata. Herzogenberg, as the story goes, had at his disposal a harmonium player and a four-part choir, and was directed to write simple solo passages, the text being provided by the Bible and the church hymn book and some selections from Boehme’s folk songs. Plying Spitta with wine and slabs of cheese at the local inn, Herzogenberg made his case for the provision of some string-players, arguing that a handful of beer-addled fiddlers could be rounded up easily enough on the cheap, and that an oboe really would go over much better than a wheezing harmonium. And what do you know—it is indeed Herzogenberg’s pined for—and well-won—oboe that provides the piping, brimming joy on the piece’s final, triumphant chorus. Take that, Herr Spitta.
Unaware of the work’s back story—or that its title translates to “The Birth of Christ”—you’re not likely to denote anything overwhelmingly seasonal in the music, probably for the reason that the God-fearing Herzogenberg wished to suggest not a time of the year, but rather a prevailing consistency of faith: contemplation voicing celebration, musically speaking. Thus, proclamatory passages feed into triumphal, impeccably blended choruses, the voices of Steiner and Werner rounded out by the tenors beneath, additional heft then provided by the bass singers, for a caramelized, shining, shimmering whole. Rarely am I disappointed in the sound of any cpo recording, and this is not the set to buck the trend; it’s live, but there’s little in the way of ambient sound, and when some extraneous noise is picked up—like when an audience member stifles a faint cough near the end—it only adds to the atmosphere of solemnity; here is music that bespeaks a devotion upon which we must not intrude. You can’t exactly stuff your collection with
Die Geburt Christi
recordings—I know of only one other set, on Hänssler Classic—but one could profit by the notes, themes, and oboe melody encoded in this disc for an age, so no worries there. And when the oboe does drop out for a full stop before the choir surges to life three quarters of the way through the recording, the bequests of a hundred sugar plum fairies probably wouldn’t be enough to set you to thinking how another version might be procured.
FANFARE: Colin Fleming