Weihnachtslieder (Vol. 1 & 2): Fifty-eight selections of traditional German Christmas Carols from various ensembles
Recorded at various dates, some tracks taken from previous releases – 72’28 (Vol. 1) & 68’47 (Vol. 2)
Two individual compact discs Carus 83.009 (Vol. 1) & 83.010 (Vol. 2) – Essays and translations in German and English
Depending on your vantage point, “Christmas Carols” could include everything from Handel’s Messiah to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” As part of its ongoing project, started by singer Cornelius Hauptmann, music publisher Carus and German radio station SWR2 have teamed up to present two volumes of “Weihnachtslieder” (Christmas carols). This project, spanning the past several years, was started for the purpose of encouraging singing to children and the preservation of the vast number of German songs, from lullabies to folk songs. The audio CD portion of the project is substantial and includes contributions from some of the most outstanding soloists and ensembles in Germany. The headliners on volume one are Jonas Kaufmann and Angelika Kirchschlager, two internationally famous opera singers. While the headliners may grab a potential buyer’s attention, their contributions are limited to just one song each. What the listener finds is that the whole of both volumes is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
The first volume begins with Michael Praetorius’ popular “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” in its traditional harmonization, as sung by the Kammerchor Stuttgart. The outstanding lieder tenor Julian Prégardien follows with a soaring rendition of “Leise rieselt der Schnee,” the stunning Eduard Ebel song. As the program progresses, its consistently high artistic quality makes for an engaging listen. Arrangements are virtually all outstanding, even though they are not necessarily the most well-known. As a nod to the project’s mission, there are a handful of tracks that feature children singers. “Ihr Kinderlein, kommet” (O Come, Little Children), beautifully sung by Christian and Paulina Elsner, is touching. Another case is the father-son duo of Julian and Christoph Prégardien who are featured together on two tracks: “Fröhliche Weihnacht überall” and “Stille Nacht,” which closes the second volume. You can practically hear the Christmas tradition of these families come through on record, with wonderfully satisfying musical results.
If there is a concern to be had with these discs, it would be a lack of variety. Thankfully, it is a hardly an issue. True, you won’t find any large orchestral arrangements or anything bordering on boisterous, but the character of selections is interesting enough to keep the listener’s interest. A good example is Cornelius Hauptman’s performance of the bouncy “Er klopfet an” with singers from the Stuttgart Knabenchor college. It is a fun and playful piece. A capella group Niniwe’s “O Jesulein zart” is about as far out as this program gets. Their arrangement is syncopated with the three lower voices providing rhythmic vocal accompaniment to the melody and it is quite successful.
There is some repetition of carols and ensembles, which is unsurprising over 58 tracks, but the different arrangements and outstanding ability of the groups, particularly the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart as led by Marcus Creed, do not cause any ear fatigue. There are, of course, some selections that are less memorable than others. I find headliner Jonas Kaufmann’s plodding “O du fröhliche” to be an odd miss-fire, for example. Still, I would not hesitate to recommend listening to the disc in full. Jumping between early music group Ensemble 94’s tight instrumental interludes and Christoph Prégardien’s thoughtful lieder approach make these volumes engrossing. Baritone Dietrich Henschel’s “Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen” is certainly a highlight and shouldn’t be missed.
In closing, I would make one thing clear: these two discs are not for every listener. As the project suggests, these albums are devoted to Lieder in the traditional sense. The intimacy of the performances is perfect for a chilly winter night in front of the fire, or an advent candle lighting with your family. Given that, I believe these “Weihnachtslieder” are a very important addition to the catalogue and would be a treasure for those who enjoy this music. The performers’ devotion to the spiritual character of this music is exceptional. Given the plethora of effusive Christmas music, these two discs are a welcome respite.
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Matthew Richard Martinez