Michael Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh
DRET Youth Choir & Primary All Stars
St John’s, Smith Square, 17 December 2019
The Gabrieli Consort & Players revived their popular 1994 recording reconstructing a typical Central German Lutheran Christmas Mass from around 1620. With an extraordinary range of instruments and singers spread around the stage and galleries of St John’s, Smith, this was a spectacular performance. The sheer logistics of it all were remarkable, with frequent movement of singers and instruments around the concert hall.
The 18 Gabrielli singers were joined by a large group of youngsters from various Midlands academy schools, ranging in age from 9 upwards. Generally positioned in the galleries right and left of the stage, they occasionally ventured into further corners, most notably during the 14th-century hymn Quem pastores laudavere. This was traditionally sung with each line sung by one of four boys positioned in the four corners of the church, representing the angels of the heavenly host. On this occasion, the youngest singers were positioned in the gallery corners, each accompanied by their own distinctive instrumental colour.
The enormous array of instruments included cornets & sackbutts, trumpets, shawms, rackets, crumhorns, dulcians, recorders, strings, timpani and several keyboards including regals, harpsichord and organs, including the grand St John’s (liturgical) west end organ. The latter was playing with considerable dexterity and imagination by William Whitehead, with several solo moments of organ Preludes and choral introductions, many of which were improvised.
Two of the most aurally interesting were the deceptively small great-bass racket that, courtesy of some complicated internal plumbing, produced some of the lowest notes of the evening, and the enormous contrabass (or even sub-contrabass) crumhorn, looking rather like an Alpine horn laying diagonal on its frame to the side of the stage.
The two violins produced some energetic figurations during the final chords of several of the pieces, their involvement demonstrating the cross-over nature of instruments between the Renaissance and Baroque of this period, when the violin started to replace the cornett as the principal treble instrument.
The soloists drawn from the choir are far too many to mention and were, in any case, not individually acknowledged in the programme. Most were excellent, although there were a few vocal weaknesses. The combined forces of the professional and 40+ children’s’ voices made a very impressive sound, notable at the end when everybody joined in a breathtaking version of In dulce jubilo. The timpani wallops and trumpet fanfares before the final verse made several people sitting close to me jump.
Considerably kudos must go to conductor Paul McCreesh, not least for remembering where everybody was in some of the more complex pieces.