Michael Praetorius’ Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning is The Gabrieli Consort and Players’ most popular recording, and they have taken the opportunity provided by 2017 – a year that celebrates the half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation – to re-visit it in a short UK tour, culminating in Thursday night’s performance at St John’s, which, under their director, Paul McCreesh, also brought in Gabrieli partner choirs The Deutsche Bank Singers and The Schola Cantorum from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.
Although the Mass is the work of a single composer, the different emphases that the liturgy requires provide ample opportunity for variation of texture – from organ preludes and intonations of the lessons through unison choral recitations of the Creed, quiet, simple homophonic choral Communion motes (in this performance, the two chorales, Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geboren and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern) to Venetian-influenced polychoral settings of the hymns (which involved authentically Lutheran audience participation) and in the canon of the Mass. The latter examples culminated in a magnificent performance of Praetorius’ In dulci jubilo à 8, in which all the forces (presumably, in Praetorius’s day, his own ensemble, augmented by members of the town band) were ranged around the balconies of St John’s.
The performance wasn’t short on texture, either, pulling in groups of various instrument types to create contrast, such as in the Sanctus, Quem pastores laudavere and Puer natus, so that some soloists or groups of singers were accompanied by keen-edged period strings, others by the nasal buzz of dulcians or the mediaeval edginess of crumhorns, and still others by either the hugeness of the main organ (splendidly played by William Whitehead) or the solid warmth of sackbuts. The whole ensemble playing together created a hair-raisingly fulsome sound, underscored by the fruity rasp of a quart bass shawm, an instrument so large that it needed its own stand.
The performances were, on the whole, excellent, with some beautifully nuanced solos from various members of the choir (the opening Christum wir sollen loben schon – with alternating female and male solos interspersed with unison from each section, finishing with a simple harmony – made for an effective ‘sit-up-and-listen’ beginning), and there were some special moments – the Creed, although intoned in unison, was enlivened by it being in three octaves (with some impressive octavo singing from the basses), and the hymns – in which different verses brought into play different singers, different groups of instruments, and the audience itself with full organ – were hugely enjoyable. Although the ‘authentic’ re-creation of the Mass as it would have been celebrated in 1620 required its entirety to be performed, the lengthy recitation of the lessons (particularly St Luke’s account of the Nativity for the Gospel) made for a degree of ennui, and could have been omitted without loss: this was, after all, a concert, not an act of worship. Some sections, perhaps, needed a little more rehearsal: the intonation in Sonata Padouana à 5 for brass instruments was far from ideal, and certainly brought to the evening a feeling that the lads from the village had turned up to add a touch of rustic verisimilitude to the event. It was, however, a welcome return for one of those re-creations that put The Gabrieli Consort on the early-music map.