With German Christmas markets springing up like mushrooms in British cities, it was appropriate that the Armonico Consort should present a seventeenth-century musical complement.
And no better way to start than with Heinrich Schutz’s ‘Christmas Story’ which, as Armonico’s musical director Christopher Monks observes, is a sort of Advent calendar of pop-up scenes, the Nativity being narrated by an Evangelist with hymns, trios, and instrumental interludes along the way.
The instrumental line-up consisted of strings, harpsichord, chamber organ, bassoon, two cornets, and three sackbuts (proto-trombones), all of which made a perfect backdrop. And the choral sound seemed both familiar and strange: familiar in that one could hear the influence of Schutz’s Italian exemplars Monteverdi and Gabrieli in the melismas decorating the solos, but at the same time very German in the hymns’ down-home innocence. The choral singing had charm, but what tenor Michael Solomon-Williams did with the Evangelist’s gently melodious recitatives was remarkable, shaping and colouring them with the most delicate restraint: this was a real star turn.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a collection of Michael Praetorius’s chorale arrangements – and with a thousand such things to choose from, Monks had a rich seam to mine. Praetorius slightly predated Schutz, and was even more devout: his initials – Michael Praetorius Creuzburgensis – also meant for him ‘Mihi Patria Coelum’ (Heaven is my native land). He famously declared that ‘the art of choral singing is truly the correct, heavenly way of making music’. And he too was influenced by Monteverdi and Gabrieli – though as Monks and his performers went on to demonstrate, in a rather more dramatic way.
We had ravishing interludes on woodwind and brass whose primitive technology produced fascinating textures, but the glory of this compendium lay in the way the chorus kept dividing and sub-dividing itself to spread to all four corners of the auditorium, at one point splitting into twenty parts. The programme was written in such a way that it was impossible to discover the name of the excellent soprano who sang ‘In dulce jubilo’ (itself misspelt) at a stratospheric pitch, but the star turn here was a solo by counter-tenor William Towers, whose opulent sound blended with the accompanying sackbuts as though he were a brass instrument himself.