by Annie Zykova
There was no better venue than the University Church of St Mary the Virgin for a performance of German Christmas carols from the baroque period by the Oxford University Chorus. The concert took place on Wednesday of eighth week and was a fantastic way of preparing its audience for the Christmas season in an intimate environment, almost nostalgic given the polished authenticity to the period and style that the ensemble achieved.
The church, which even predates the music by some centuries, complemented the performance well; for the duration of the concert, one truly felt transported into a distant past, aided even by the very sensation of the building: the crisp, chilly air and even the smells of the church worked together with the music to create a complete sensory immersion into the period in which the works were originally composed. I could not help but feel that slightly dimmer lighting would have enhanced this experience even further by intensifying the intimacy and meditative quality of the music. Indeed, the relative brightness of the lights slightly took away from the experience that the performance offered. The programme consisted of a carefully-selected set of compositions by three of the most renowned German composers of the period: Heinrich Schütz, Johann Hermann Schein and Samuel Scheidt.
Johann Hermann Schein was characteristic for being one of the first German composers to use features of Italian baroque music as inspiration for his own compositions and apply these originally Catholic conventions to a Lutheran context. The first two pieces of the concert were his compositions ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ and ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, as well as ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ being the penultimate piece.
Samuel Scheidt was the first internationally-recognised organ composer from Germany. Scheidt is considered an example of composers writing in what was, at the time, a newly-emerging north German musical style that is distinct from its Italian-influenced south German counterpart. His composition ‘Magnificat’ was the third piece in the setlist.
The organist and composer Heinrich Schütz is often considered to be the most important German composer before Bach. One of the defining features of his music is imitation at irregular and unpredictable intervals, in contrast to those of Scheidt, thus being a particular challenge to performers. The concert closed with his composition ‘Weihnachtshistorie (Historia der geburt Jesu Christi)’.
The balance between solo features and full choir numbers was distributed well, ensuring a tasteful interweaving of performances. The challenge of singing in German certainly proved to be a hurdle the ensemble could overcome; the diction and pronunciation, even in the extensive solo numbers, sounded natural and effortless. This successfully contributed to a convincing delivery, virtually transporting the listener back to the heyday of this sacred music.
The technical skill of the performers was very evident. The ensemble successfully kept with the tempo throughout the entirety of the concert, even at significant and sudden alterations. Counterpoint, which is one of the defining features of this style of music, was observed very impressively, with none of the voices overpowering one another, which led to a very well-structured and satisfying sound. Similarly to the vocals, the organ struck the perfect balance between providing a solid backing for the ensemble whilst not overpowering it. No piece proved to be a challenge for the vocalists, who flowed effortlessly from one note to another with articulation, vibrato and intonation seldom differing from that of a professional ensemble. A true example of the very high standard of music within the university community.
The only musical drawback of the concert was the occasional difficulty that the brass section had in reaching the more difficult notes, particularly in the second half of the event, during Schütz’s ‘Weihnachtshistorie’. As a result, these errors sometimes punctured the otherwise enticing atmosphere created by the impressive musical delivery, a slightly disappointing contrast given the high standards that had been established. However, these mistakes were not frequent enough to damage the overall impression that the concert had created, thus making it more of a subtle imperfection rather than a fatal flaw.
On the whole, the concert was a pleasure to attend. The Oxford University Chorus certainly succeeded in their mission of bringing to Oxford a refreshingly unique way of celebrating the Christmas period. They allowed the audience to immerse themselves in the music of a different country and time to their own with admirable sensitivity and accuracy. Combined with a fantastic choice of venue that enhanced the magic of this music further still, the occasional minor slips in the second half ultimately did not take away from the overall wonderfully unique experience of this ‘German Baroque Christmas’.