Oh, That We Were There…For This Entire Month: The Folger Consort, December 12, 2009

Michael Praetorius composed in Lutheran Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, way before the modern notion of the “holiday” season and its ideal of cozy, reflexive happiness. His music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ thus has a tone unfamiliar to us: awestruck, ruminative, severe, filled with wonder. His setting of the words “Mein Herzenskindlein, mein liebstes Freundlein” (“My heart’s child, my dearest little friend”), a vernacular (for Praetorius) refrain for the “Puer natus” text, echoes with emotional abandon and desperation for salvation; his “Magnificat” sounds thrilled and a little scared at the majesty of God and His gift to Mary. Even Praetorius’ famous arrangements and compositions, like “In dulci jublio” or “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, e’er a rose is blooming”), arrest modern listeners in part because their sublimated emotional world is so alien to our modern holiday-season Weltanschauung.

This year’s Folger Consort Christmas program, which I attended Saturday night, focuses on Praetorius’ music, and these concerts, well-planned and admirably performed, would make an excellent tonic for anyone sick of the constant drip of treacle that permeates our Decembers.

The consort teams up with the Cantate Chamber Singers and their music director Gisele Becker for this program, and their general approach (as evidenced in other Cantate concerts (1, 2) I’ve heard) suits Praetorius to a T: Rather than reaching out to the audience to overwhelm them with projected sound and emotion, they concentrate on precision and clarity, trusting that such virtues will draw the audience in. In the close quarters of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre, this works great; the harmonies of “Es ist ein Ros” flickered like a candle’s flame, but the complex double-choir writing in “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (“Praised be you, Jesus Christ”) achieved a natural grandeur.

The artistic directors of the Consort, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, had to make some decisions about how to integrate instruments into the production; some of Praetorius’ hymn settings call for instruments in addition to voices, and some can be played on instruments in lieu of voices. Here instruments were used to vary textures as much as possible, ensuring that harmonies that can sound bare to modern ears did not become monotonous.

Eisenstein played viol, violin, and recorder during the concert, and several of the other musicians switched instruments frequently as well. Perhaps most impressive among these was Tom Zajac, whose rounded trombone tone gave a special lift to Praetorius’ extravagant setting of “Wachet auf” (“Wake, awake”), which opened the program. In this showcase, Eisenstein and David Douglass played the Italian-inspired violin lines, zooming up and down and around the chorus’ harmonies. The Cantate folks relished Praetorius’ word painting, making a bustle for “Sie wachet und steht eilend auf” (“She wakes and quickly gets up”) and a proclamation from “mächtig” (“mighty”), while ensuring that the underlying hymn tune shone through all the activity.

Wisely, instrumental works by contemporaries were used to give the audience a chance to breathe between Praetorius’ intense compositions. Zajac gave a cool, stylish solo on the Baroque flute in selections from Johann Hermann Schein’s “Banchetto Musicale,” and Samuel Scheidt’s “Canzon super Intradam Aechiopicam” got peppy recorder playing from Zajac, Stillman, and Eisenstein. Though there were some occasional ensemble snafus and moments of insecurity among the other players on Saturday night, generally the assembled players gave an appealing, subtle spring to their rhythms, and it’s always a treat to hear so many different period instruments in a room small enough that you can appreciate their unique sonorities.

The program’s summit came at its close, with five settings of “In dulci jublio.” In the first, Zajac and Daniel Stillman, who was playing some sort of reed instrument not listed in the program, played a duet that seemed magically suspended in midair, with the tang of Stillman’s instrument balanced against Zajac’s trombone and the two instruments’ lines weaving around each other in mutual support. The succeeding choral settings were arranged in order of increasing complexity, moving quickly beyond the harmonization most familiar in modern times to ever more ear-catching elaborations. (I would have lapped up about five more settings…)

Yet the encore, J.S. Bach’s chorale on the “Wachet auf” hymn tune whose Praetorius setting opened the concert, sounded shockingly modern by contrast in its harmonic warmth, even though Bach was only writing 100 years or so after Praetorius. It only emphasized how distant Praetorius’ music is to us, and how fascinating (and refreshing) a committed exploration of something far away can be.

More performances Wednesday through Sunday! See the Folger website for times.

LUTHERAN PEOPLE LIKE LUTHERAN MUSIC

I was raised Lutheran, and a lot of this concert was like hearing my childhood in a 2-hour program. For example, before the concert I was bothering my seatmate by singing the Lutheran Book of Worship version of “Wachet auf,” which for some reason is not the translation used in the Folger program, probably because it is in no way a literal translation with which you could follow the German text. So I may be a little biased.

Among other interesting tidbits, the excellent program notes provided the information that Michael Praetorius was a son of a Michael and for his entire life thus signed himself M.P.C., for Michael Praetorius of Creuzberg. If he were a rapper, MPC would be his MC name, and he would record a song called “Creuzberg State of Mind,” perhaps with Alicia Keys on the hook. I just like thinking about these things.

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