Distler: Die Weihnachtsgeschichte; Christmas motets

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COMPOSERS: Distler
LABELS: Thorofon
WORKS: Die Weihnachtsgeschichte; Christmas motets
PERFORMER: Stephanie Petitlaurent (soprano), Silvia Fricke (alto), Mark Adler (tenor), Klaus Thiem (baritone), Rudolf Preckwinkel (bass); Berlin Hochschule der Künste Chamber Choir/Christian Grube
CATALOGUE NO: CTH 2281
Anglican music being by tradition accompanied, the a cappella choralism of Hugo Distler (1908-42) is unlikely to flourish in our midst. A pity, for two reasons. Firstly, the composer’s suicide, provoked by Nazi hostility, is worthy of remembrance in itself. Secondly, in its own way his sacred music is an impressive achievement, more than just a footnote to the major history.

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Between the wars Distler worked in the spirit of Luther to purify Protestant sacred music style of its Romantic excess. Often, in his unaccompanied oratorio The Christmas Story, the voices proceed in ways that recall Vaughan Williams; but the cadences are as likely to end in bare fifths as in rich modality, and echoes of Schütz replace those of Tallis and Gibbons.

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The result is intriguing choral writing, without parallel in 20th-century British music. The oratorio contains a masterly set of variations on ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’, and the collection of eight Christmas motets on the more recent Thorofon disc adds to the picture of a dedicated artist. The Berlin Hochschule der Künste Chamber Choir is warmly captured. The Leipzig account sounds more like a chilly East German recording session, though finely performed. Nicholas Williams