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GRAMOPHONE (December / 2017)
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Reviewer: Edward Breen

This latest exploration of Buxtehude and his circle from Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices is a joyful, festive programme divided into four sections – ‘The Annunciation and Advent’, ‘The Shepherds’, ‘The Nativity’ and ‘New Year, Epiphany & Annunciation’ – each one containing a work by Buxtehude, at least one substantial motet by a related composer and an organ solo. It was recorded in the warm acoustic of Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen.  

There is an incredible variety here, as demonstrated by the first three tracks: beginning with a delicate, bright organ Praeambulum in F by Heinrich Scheidemann (c1595-1663) played by Allen Rasmussen on a mellow and intimate chamber organ by Verner Pedersen. Then comes a setting of the hymn ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ by Christian Geist (c1650-1711) for solo soprano with intertwining violin parts, played with a delicious sprightly quality by Fredrik From and Jesenka Balic Zunic. Lastly, a small masterpiece by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), Merk auf, mein Herz for double choir. Listeners will know this from an intimate, meditative performance by Vox Luminis under Lionel Meunier (Ricercar, 8/15). Here, however, Hillier offers a faster, more demonstrative and quick-witted reading. Listen out for the ox and ass, and the stunning setting of ‘zu ruhn in meines Herzens Schrein, dass nimmer ich vergesse dein’. The execution of that last line (‘that I may never forget you’) shows Hillier’s Midas touch.  

Generally speaking, this vocal line-up is not my favourite of the permutations of this ensemble. The musicianship is, as ever, extraordinary but the balance suffers. Particularly I find the first soprano dominates and the basses sometimes plod against the tide of the instrumental phrasing. The last motet, Ab Oriente venerunt Magi by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), however, is Theatre of Voices at their level best: tender, blended and deliciously phrased. If you are looking for the Christmas disc of 2017, here it is.

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