CD Review: Narození Pána Krista (Teares of the Muses)

Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia (Audio CD)

A delightful CD of early Christmas music has appeared—too late for this season of giving. But it is not too early to stock up now for next year’s season; this is a wonderful gift for a music lover, good any time of year.


The music is a half-century before J. S. Bach; and it brings to life works from 17th century Bohemia across a range of moods and both courtly and popular forms. An opening Mass and a Sonata, and in the middle a dance-music Suite, are complemented by sweet carols that then alternate with religious pieces, an Alma redemptoris Mater, an Adesto multitudo coelestis exercitus, and a Magnificat. The CD was recorded at the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, NYC.


Detailed notes explain musical contexts and who the composers were: Adam Vacláv Michna, Johann Michael Nicolai, Michael Praetorius, Samuel Capricornus, Vacláv Karel Rovensky, and David Funck (who wrote “delicate baroque dances that could have been played at a court ball or banquet” but who was—you’d never know it from the music—“unstable and dissolute”; he was “forced to flee from a girls’ school in Upper Franconia where he worked, and was found dead shortly thereafter”).


This is the product of collaboration, between The Teares of the Muses (The New York University Collegium Viol Consort), soprano Kathleen Cantrell, and the Ghostlight Vocal Quartet. Teares of the Muses’s Director Margaret Panofsky played first treble viol and first bass viol, directing from the chair; Collegium musicians are Caroline Marris and Christina Brandt-Young (treble viol and bass viol), Jeremy Brandt-Young and Carlene Stober (bass viol); and John Cantrell (organ and percussion). Panofsky selected the music, provided the notes, and did considerable musicological research to ensure authenticity but also applied some creative interpretation to the carols. Panofsky wrote and performed the treble variations for the various pieces.


The timbre is soft and sweet, but serious and soulful; and richly resonant, from being performed at St. Michael’s. Cantrell's voice is very special, catching just the feeling of the old music, and I like how the Ghostlight Vocal Quartet harmonizes with her sound. The treble viol playing on the first two carols, by Michna, is gorgeous; the treble viol's voice and Cantrell’s voice merge and then play off wonderfully. Same for the three later Michna Christmas Carols. The first of them, "Zvani...," has a perky plucking motif and a sort of cheerfulness. The one next after is nicely cheerful too, yet mellow. The viol playing is sublime, rings out just right; the music between second and third stanzas is a nice little surprise for the listener.


The pieces are all rich and intricate. Across them all, however, what I did not quite hear is "joy"—even in “In Dulce Jubilo,’ which is more “dulce” than “jubilant.” This is not a criticism, it is praise of how true the performance is to the music! Especially Baroque religious music carries forward a medieval attitude about religion: that religion is serious, and life is a prison. Even Christmas music is never just-plain-happy. (Besides, wasn’t the “happy Christmas” idea invented in the nineteenth century?)


The Funck Suite in A Minor feels elemental, as it moves from walking to running and then dancing; and you can hear the intention of it being happy, and the little Ballo ends it sweetly! The Capricornus is a good piece to show off; the CD’s notes say the choice to combine treble viol and soprano is anachronistic, but it works very well in how the singing and viol play off each other; I like this piece a lot. Also the Rovensky arrangement, with the repeated bouncy little same notes, is tonally thoughtful and sweet, and the viol just sings in the slow part near the end. Michna's Magnificat is simple but rich (and it is nice for Cantrell to be able to relax from Czech into Latin); Cantrell and the Ghostlight team are very good together here. The final three carols close the whole in a lively brio, as joyful as it seems possible to make this music be. My favorite is the last—it dances, the viols are singing, the poem is witty as well as sweet, and the composer has caught the somewhat sassy spirit of the words as well as a happy cheerfulness that might, for the end, be called joy!


The wholeness of the performance was accidentally highlighted for me when the CD started re-playing to the start—I thought, wow, the tone of this thing changed! It achieves a progression from the more thoughtful through to the more joyful as the pieces flow.


Reviewed by Rich Jacobs