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CD Review

Hieronymous Praetorius

Sacred Music for Double Chorus

  • Missa super Angelus ad pastores ait
  • Motet "Angelus ad pastores ait"
  • Motet "Laudate Dominum"
  • Motet "Ecce Dominus veniet"
  • Motet "Ein Kinderlein so löbelich"
  • Motet "Ecce quam bonum"
  • Motet "Te Deum Patrem ingenitum"
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Magnificat "Canticum Beatae Mariae Virginis": Cantate Domino
Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston
Edith Ho, Music Director
Ross Wood, Associate Conductor
Arsis CD165
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Hieronymous Praetorius (1560-1629) is not thought to have been related directly to his more famous namesake, Michael Praetorius, although they were close contemporaries – and met in 1596; the latter lived from 1571 to 1621. The north German Praetorius family, though, was a large one and many members of it were indeed musicians. Hieronymous Praetorius was (also) an organist and composer; he was born, and spent most of his life, in Hamburg – much of it as organist at the Jacobikirche there. He was in fact the first musician from the city to gain an international reputation.

On this fine CD from the Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston, we hear nine choral pieces by Hieronymous Praetorius; they amply illustrate the breadth, profundity, exuberance and beauty of this side of his output. Although dating from long before such composers as Schütz, Scheidt and Schein, Praetorius fell under the spell of Venetian traditions through that generation of north European composers who either visited Italy and/or were otherwise (in)directly influenced by those who had. It was they who established the antiphonal music (so effective in places like St. Mark's in Venice) in Germany.

Praetorius' five volume Op. Musicum was published in Hamburg between 1599 and 1625 in eight vocal part-books and for basso continuo. It consists of a hundred Latin and German motets in from five to twenty parts for from one to four choirs, half a dozen masses and nine Magnificats – all for double choir. Coming at the very beginning of the Baroque era, this compelling music (mostly still unknown) is, as might be expected, a happy blend of old and new styles which exhibit many instances of pure Italian influence: the Gloria of the "Angelus ad Pastores ait" Mass [tr.3], the one example of its kind on the Church of the Advent's collection, would hardly have been out of place in St. Mark's.

The Mass has a gentle splendor, a tireless momentum and a purposeful tonal center of gravity to which the expert Choir under their accomplished Music Director, Edith Ho, more than do justice. The modulations in tempo and attack during the Credo [tr.4], for example, add an excitement and depth, a drama (e.g. at "Et resurrexit") and presence that contribute to more than just the musical atmosphere and immediacy. The listener feels directly communicated to by Praetorius. The text, the words themselves – expertly phrased under Ho's direction and beautifully articulated by the Choir, are paramount. Every syllable is clear and made to relate properly to those around it in the context of music written after Luther and so designed to bring the sacred message directly to the worshippers. (Even through the model for services in Hamburg remained the Latin one until the very end of the century.) Listen to the way sounds, syllables, sentences and thus sentiments in the Laudate Dominum [tr.7], for example, bring us completely within earshot of their origin, and thus invite us to offer such praise as well.

The "Angelus ad Pastores ait" Mass is a "parody mass", which means its main theme is taken from a source (here the motet which opens the performance) previously used elsewhere. Then follow eight of Praetorius' 40 eight-part motets. One might be surprised at the variety of which Praetorius is capable. The music is in turns passionate, joyful (playful even – as in "Ein Kindelein so Löbelich", [tr.9]), plangent, expansive and restrained. The Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston, is alive to all the potential of the music – and the pitfalls: of over emphasis or too eagerly exerted muscularity, for example. And ready to take every opportunity to convey not only these and other emotions through their obviously delighted engagement with the music; but also to communicate the seriousness and original purpose of the composer's eminently fertile mind.

So, quite remarkably – since Hieronymous Praetorius must fall into the category of overlooked giants – the Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston, sings on this CD (as it does on others, also largely for Arsis) with a confidence, a poise, a genuineness and a dedication that commends the composer to us not by standing aside and letting him do the work; nor by running behind him and urging him into our face; still less by tentatively drawing aside a curtain behind which he is reluctantly revealed. But by giving us to understand that they have met and got to know the composer himself and are now passing on to us (with no sense of privilege or proviso) what he has shown them. And what he has come to mean to them.

Given the beauty, impact and pellucid sound world of this music – as well as knowing how widely used and appreciated were these open and brilliant choral compositions of Hieronymous Praetorius throughout northern Europe for the whole of the seventeenth century – the Choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston, has done us great service in bringing them anew to our attention. There are but three other CDs devoted to the repertoire ("Magnificats and Motets" with The Cardinall's Musick/Carwood on Hyperion 67669; and two separate CDs from Weser Renaissance under Manfred Cordes: "Vesper On St. Michaels Day" on CPO 999649, and "San Marco In Hamburg" on CPO 777245). Even if it weren't for those persuasive facts, this outstanding CD from Arsis would recommend itself, given the pleasure to be derived from the music and its stunningly expressive interpretation here. It comes nicely produced with an appropriate acoustic, much useful background material and the texts in Latin, German [tr.9] and English. Recommended.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey