by Rick Krueger
By the mid-1990s, more classical music was being recorded and released worldwide than ever before. Sony’s purchase of CBS Records had triggered a spending frenzy, both by the new Sony Classical and its competitors Polygram, EMI, RCA and Warner. Occasional crossover chart smashes like The Three Tenors, Henryk Gorecki’s meditative Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, or the odd compilation of Gregorian chant had a glut of major and minor orchestras, choirs and ensembles chasing the next fluke hit — usually with A&R men breathing down their necks to justify the expense.
It was a mind-boggling time to be a classical collector. Bookstores like Barnes & Noble and appliance shops like Best Buy opened in smaller and smaller towns, with deeper and deeper stocks of CDs. Mall chains like Discount Records followed suit, and free-standing superstores like Tower Records went even deeper. Detroit’s local chain Harmony House had a dedicated all-classical store; nearby Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, had at least two or three at any given time. Whether hitting 28th Street on my day off in Grand Rapids, or driving east to visit family, I knew there would be something great to find no matter where I went — I just didn’t know what.
I think I was visiting my older brother in Chicago in 1995 when I stumbled across Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning at the north side Tower Records. I’d heard a bit about Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort; their niche was “historically informed liturgical reconstruction” — in other words, playing music performed for a specific occasion, using authentic instruments and practices (like violins with gut strings and singers using less vibrato) to get as close to the original sound as possible. Given my profession, I thought this particular album (as opposed to the Gabrielis’ previous recreations of coronations and vespers in Venice) might be fun.
McCreesh wasn’t playing around. To recreate a Lutheran Christmas service “as it might have been heard … at one of the major churches in central Germany around 1620,” he pulled together a 20-strong chorus and 33 players to perform hymn settings, anthems and service music by the brilliant composer Michael Praetorius (best known for the Christmas carol “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”). Deploying his forces around the balconies of Denmark’s Roskilde Cathedral, he then recruited a full congregation to sing along with the opulent ensemble.
It’s safe to say that the results aren’t like any Christmas service you or I have ever attended. A haunting choral processional gives away to a energetic entrance hymn, sung and played by the assembled forces with verve and power — it actually swings! Later, the verses of Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” bounce back and forth between soloists, choirboys, organ, orchestra and full-throated congregation, dizzying and delightful in their variety. When the creed “We All Believe in One True God” is sung a cappella by everybody, it still sends chills down my spine. There’s plenty of warm, meditative solo music in the back half of the service, but the Gabrielis fire it up again for the finale, with the closing “In dulci jubilo” piling on the braying brass and the congregation amping up in response. It’s a wonder the roof stayed on the place.
Given that the Gabrielis were recording for Deutsche Grammophon’s Arkiv label, the recorded sound is impeccable, with unbelievably wide dynamic range and spatial clarity. (If 5.1. surround sound had been around, this would have been a stunning demo for it.) The standard of playing and singing is sky-high, with plenty of enthusiasm and flair. Throughout, McCreesh is in full command of his forces, giving both the individual pieces and the entire service forward impetus and drive. (When I heard the Gabrielis perform this program live a few years later at Ann Arbor’s resonant St. Francis Church, there was no question who was in charge.)
For me, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning was confirmation that my upbringing’s musical resources could stand up alongside the riches of the Roman, Eastern and Anglican traditions. And that, used well, with care and enthusiasm, they could serve powerfully to proclaim the Christian faith, move the whole person with their depth, substance and integrity, and invite God’s creatures to praise Him together with joy. (Also, that they could be a whole lot of serious fun!) Listen to the album here:
Other favorites by the Gabrieli Consort:
Heinrich Biber, Missa Salisburgensis. Written for the 1100th anniversary of Christianity’s establishment in Salzburg in 1682, this mass for 53 singers and players takes the monumental aesthetic of Roman & Venetian Catholic music to its uncompromising, gargantuan limit. Hold on tight, or be blown away.
Music for the Duke of Lerma. Two discs reconstructing evening services from the Spanish emperor Philip II’s visit in 1617, the music unperformed for nearly 400 years. Flamboyant and devotional all at once, as singers alternate with string, brass, fretted instruments and organ to kaleidoscopic effect.
Handel, Solomon. Messiah was definitely Handel’s greatest hit, but his other Biblical music dramas (written for when opera companies were closed down in England during Lent) have charms of their own. Andreas Scholl’s unique counter-tenor voice sets this oratorio recording apart, with the cream of young British singers in starring roles and silky smooth orchestral backing.
Monteverdi, Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610). The first landmark of early Baroque music, mixing somber old-school polyphony with innovative operatic declamation and dazzling new rhetoric for strings and brass. I’ve been privileged to sing this work; it’s just as thrilling to listen to here.
Related Christmas favorites:
Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton, O magnum misterium. Luscious a cappella carol settings by 20th-century British composers, with chants from the English Sarum rite used at Salisbury Cathedral (which I visited in 2013) as aural palette cleansers. Peaceful and calm, but by no means safe music; the works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Herbert Howells, Peter Warlock and others feature enticingly spicy harmonies.
Praetorius, Christmas Vespers (Toronto Consort and Chamber Choir, conducted by David Fallis). How much music did Praetorius compose? Enough for a completely different program like this (reconstructing a service held on the evening of December 25) to be every bit as fresh, stirring and moving.
The Quadriga Consort, On a Cold Winter’s Day. Something different from this Austrian “early music band.” Nikolaus Newerkla’s arrangements range far and wide, as the Quadrigas call Steeleye Span to mind with a beguiling blend of sprightly folk tunes, jazz rhythms, and classical chops. Their “Wexford Carol” is my very favorite version of a favorite Irish carol.
The Tavener Consort, Christmas Carols. A 4-disc bargain compilation of recordings based on 1992’s historically informed New Oxford Book of Carols. A giddy ride through seven centuries of music for the season, with shuffle play between styles, moods and topics baked into the sequence.
Previous Albums in this Series:
- #1, Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake and Palmer
- #2, Rubber Soul by the Beatles
- #3, This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello
- #4, Who’s Next by The Who
- #5, War Requiem by Benjamin Britten
- #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams
- #7, O Come All Ye Faithful by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
(Yes, I know I skipped #8. For reasons. Check back in 2018 …)