A Broadened Christmas Repertoire at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
By Corinna da Fonesca-Wollheim, The New York Times
When it comes to festive Christmas dazzle, Handel and Bach have cornered the classical market with performances of their “Messiah” and “Christmas Oratorio” taking up much of the season’s real estate. On Saturday at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, two stellar early-music ensembles, Tenet and the Dark Horse Consort, made a strong case for allowing the glittering and refined Christmas music of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) into the competition. The concert also counted members of Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity among the excellent performers.
The beautifully varied program also included selections by Andreas Hammerschmidt, Johann Rosenmüller, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, all composers grappling with different ways of incorporating Italian musical forms into a Protestant liturgical design. Like the resulting works, which feature highbrow and common musical forms and texts alternating Latin and German, the music engages the listener’s attention on a number of levels.
There was sheer sensual pleasure to be found in the graceful melodies and dappled harmonies of works like Praetorius’s “Puer natus in Bethlehem” and Hammerschmidt’s “Kyrie” and “Gloria.” Tenet’s singers, led by the beguiling sopranos Jolle Greenleaf, Anna Lenti and Molly Quinn, responded with great sensitivity to the changing demands of the writing. This included runs and ornaments that treat the human voice like an instrument, as well as deeply expressive, speech-based utterances as in Praetorius’s “Ach mein Herre.”
The Italian influence expresses itself in antiphonal arrangements that set groups of musicians in friendly competition with each other. In a work like “Gloria,” the layering, jostling and mutual reinforcing of instrumental sections and singers became a lesson in communal worship. While later baroque music often applies word painting to individual nouns, it is here the first person plural of lines like “we praise you, we bless you, we adore you” that is lavishly composed and embellished.
In “Freuet euch des Herrn” Schütz uses the injunction to “sing to him a new song” to deliver a musical demonstration of innovation, with three male singers and an instrumental ensemble proposing ever new ways to express joy in various meters and speeds.
The verses of Praetorius’s “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” were assigned to different groups of increasing substance — from a single soprano and theorbo to a full complement of singers and players — so that the hymn seemed to unfold like the successively broader petals of a flower.