CLASSCOL

Some brain-dead hobgoblin decreed some time ago that the Christmas season is a time of silence. Our concert halls are empty, except for a stray sing-along “Messiah.” Home from the holidays, the kids might, you’d think, find diuersion or self-improvement in a live symphony concert, or even a string quartet. But no; out of one side of their collective mouths, our musical managements scream at finding themselves out of touch with the young audience, but then they blatantly talk their way around this one opportunity to reaching a sizable segment of that audience with challenging programming at this time of the season. We can, of course, ward off cultural starvation at home. Handel’s “Messiah” on the home stereo can be an uplifting experience (especially with the superb new Nicholas McGegan performance released this year on Harmonia Mundi) but there are other serious musical pleasures appropriate to the season and less often heard. Since the musical managements have abandoned their task of broadening our musical horizons (at least for the moment) it falls to your reporter to fill the breach. Here, then, are some great works you may have overlooked, which may help you to hold onto sanity in this interval until the Philharmonic, the Opera Company and the various other local groups are back in operation. When was the last time, for example, that you heard the Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schutz? Never, you say? You are, then, missing a work of simple, powerful beauty. Schutz (1585-1677) comes in at the start of the Baroque. Like his German contemporary, the painter Albrecht Durer, Schutz spent much time in Italy, thawing his Northern sensibilities under the Tuscan sun. The result is a wonderful mixture of craftsmanship and delight. This work from his mature years is full of fresh dramatic devices that were all new and startling in their time: voices interacting with instruments in a way that foreshadows operatic writing. Solo voices and chorus alternate in telling the story of the Nativity; near the end there’s a chorus in praise of God that is so simply, radiantly beautiful that you’ll need to play it again and again. The work is available on two recordings, both marvelous: Rene Jacobs and his Concerto Vocale on Harmonia Mundi and Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Choir and Players on Angel-EMI. Go back a few years, and revel in Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.” This is not Christmas music, strictly speaking; it’s a setting of the evening service in the Catholic Church at any time of the year. But this particular setting was composed by Monteverdi for a festive celebration at the Court in Mantua, and so it will do for Christmas as well as not. Monteverdi’s dates are 1567-1643, which fortells 1993 as a big year for this composer. The Vespers form an astounding work: 90 minutes in which one of music’s sovereign innovators revels in an astounding vocabulary of new musical inventions, some of them of his own devising. The opening is astounding enough: the chorus in the center, surround by the raucous brass contingent pealing forth their challenges as if to ring the whole thing by flames. Then Monteverdi moves us on, through a number of Psalm settings for soloists and chorus, up to one of the most stunning compositional feats of his or anyone else’s time. That would be the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria.” The full Baroque orchestra — strings, winds, brass and organ — take on the measures of a dance: zany, wildly spirited, breathless, the rhythm constantly changing. Threaded through this glorious racket is a single line of chant, taken up by the sopranos and repeated 11 times: “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” (“Blessed Mary, pray for us.”)There is something in these insistently repeated phrases, and in the flickering dances all around it, that suggests something grandiose, wild and infinite; there’s nothing else in music quite like this. Recordings: there are several excellent performances, but the one conducted by Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi stands apart, with the brazen sound of archaic trumpets and trombones (played by a group called the Toulouse Sacqueboutiers) adding to the sense of grandeur. There is also considerable charm in Arthur Honegger’s “Christmas Cantata,” on a recent Erato disc. Honegger (1892-1955) is one of those composers whose fame falls through the cracks now and then, and then occasionally gets revived. He was one of the composers (the so-called “Group of Six”) who hung out with Jean Cocteau in the 1920s, and, like most of the others, turned toward a very simple, devotional musical style in his later scores. The “Christmas Cantata” dates from 1953; it is scored (very prettily) for baritone, children’s and adult choirs, organ and orchestra, with a simple devotional text hailing Jesus’ birth in ecumenical terms. The new recording, excellently led by Michel Corboz, also includes a more familiar Honegger work: “La Danse des Morts” (“Dance of the Dead”), decidedly not a Christmas text. It’s a marvelous work on its own, however, with the narrator howling forth the story of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones and the chorus and soloists shrieking forth their commentary. Unless you can lay your hands on the historic (but, alas, long-discontinued) performance under Charles Munch, with the glorious oratory of Jean-Louis Barrault as narrator, this one will do fine. Happy holidays!

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