Yale Schola Cantorum Performs Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie

By Christopher Browner

Baroque painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus surrounded by angels in a painting by Carlo Maratta from 1655
The Holy Night, 1655 (oil on canvas) by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713); Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; PD-1923 (out of copyright)

The superbly talented singers of Yale Schola Cantorum, Yale Institute of Music’s chamber choir for the performance of sacred music, were still in the holiday spirit on January 27, 2018, when they offered a radiant performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie (Christmas Story), SWV 435 to a packed audience at New Haven’s Christ Church. The evening — which also featured a selection of other Christmas-themed works by Schütz — showcased the ensemble’s accomplished musicianship under the direction of their principal conductor, David Hill.

The first half of the concert comprised six standalone pieces all centered on the birth of Christ — from a jubilant rendition of the choral “Hodie Christus natus est,” SWV 456 to an intimate yet engaging duet for soprano and countertenor “Ave Maria, gratia plena,” SWV 334 to a setting of the Marian “Magnificat,” SWV 468 replete with vivid text painting. Throughout, the choir sang in taut harmony, even in passages of richly textured polyphony, as in “Das Wort ward Fleisch,” SWV 385, with its text taken from the opening lines of the Gospel of John. And while the nearly 30-member ensemble was always at the forefront, the first half also featured many moments of excellent solo singing, most notably the bright tenors of Haitham Haidar and James Reese and the focused, ethereal soprano of Addy Sterrett.

After a brief intermission, the group returned for the centerpiece of the program, Weihnachts-Historie, a sung, quasi-theatrical account of the Nativity story that stitched together various biblical passages and sacred hymns. A series of scenes connected by a single narrator, the Evangelist, the bulk of the singing lay with Reese, who impressed not only with his stamina but also with his agile voice and penetrating timbre. Sterrett reappeared as the Angel of Lord, again executing the challenging music with crystalline tone and adept precision. Bass-baritone Matt Sullivan was a commanding King Herod, and countertenor Bradley Sharpe, mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy, and Haidar blended nicely as shepherds. The chorus, this time playing a more supporting role, further enhanced the storytelling.

Note must be made of the accomplished Baroque orchestra that accompanied the evening’s proceedings. In addition to a full compliment of strings, the 16-person ensemble featured fluttering recorders — skillfully played by Grant Herreid and Mack Ramsey — dulcian, theorbo, and a brass section that included trumpets, cornets, and sackbuts. Throughout the evening, Hill marshaled all the musical forces with energy and passion, qualities that clearly translated into the group’s spirited performance.

Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Liturgical Time Machine: Ensemble Origo Performs Luther’s Deutsche Messe

By Christopher Browner

Luther as Professor, 1529 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); Schlossmuseum, Weimar, Germany; German, out of copyright
September 16th, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manhattan

For an hour or so on a balmy September evening, Hartford-based early-music group Ensemble Origo transported a small but excited audience to September 14, 1530, the Feast of the Holy Cross. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the group presented a musical reconstruction of a Medieval Lutheran church service. The concert, entitled “Luther’s Deutsche Messe” and built around Martin Luther’s instruction on how to celebrate a Mass, included German chorales by Luther’s chief musical collaborator, Johann Walter, declaimed portions of the liturgy set by Luther, and four of five movements of Josquin des Prez’s heavenly Missa de Beata Virgine. (The “Credo” was sung in a German setting by Walter.) With their clean, pure tones and taut harmonies, the ensemble of eight a cappella singers, led by Ensemble Origo’s director, Eric Rice, offered a vivid and moving account of early-Lutheran adoration.

The four selections by Josquin were the clear standout of the evening, with the ensemble executing the complex, textured polyphony with seeming ease. The singers created a balanced and elegant vocal blend while also masterfully executing the composer’s florid, ornamented lines. The “Sanctus” was especially moving, as soprano Sarah Moyer’s light, shimmering tone floated above the group with angelic lyricism. Later, Moyer lent her voice, alongside the cooler soprano of Megan Chartrand and the husky alto of Mary Gerbi, in a lovely rendition of Walter’s “Nun freut Euch,” a trio originally intended for choirboys.

The men of Ensemble Origo also displayed skilled musicianship. Basses Elijah Blaisdell and Paul Max Tipton sang with sonorous richness in both their solo numbers—they were responsible for singing much of the declaimed music, such as the Collect and Gospel—and when contributing to the larger musical texture. Countertenor Clifton Massey’s supple timbre contributed nicely to a brief duet with Tipton during the second verse of Josquin’s “Agnus Dei,” and tenors Paul D’Arcy and James Williamson sang as if they were one, bright voice throughout the evening—even if D’Arcy’s sound did seem a little stretched by the solo demands placed upon him during the Epistle.

All in all, the performance was fairly brief; however, in that short time, the Ensemble Origo not only offered a superb performance of sublime early music, they succeeded in resurrecting the past in a uniquely ear-opening way.

Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Ensemble Origo’s performances of Christ lag in Todesbanden will be on February 9th, 10th, and 11th in Hartford, Boston, and New York. Visit https://www.ensembleorigo.org/ for more information.