Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia, Audio CD

A delightful CD of early Christmas music has appeared—too late for this season of giving. But it is not too early to stock up now for next year’s season; this is a wonderful gift for a music lover, good any time of year.

The music is a half-century before J. S. Bach; and it brings to life works from 17th-century Bohemia across a range of moods and both courtly and popular forms. An opening Mass and a Sonata, and in the middle a dance-music Suite, are complemented by sweet carols that then alternate with religious pieces, an Alma redemptoris Mater, an Adesto multitudo coelestis exercitus, and a Magnificat. The CD was recorded at the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, NYC.

Detailed notes explain musical contexts and who the composers were: Adam Vacláv Michna, Johann Michael Nicolai, Michael Praetorius, Samuel Capricornus, Vacláv Karel Rovensky, and David Funck (who wrote “delicate baroque dances that could have been played at a court ball or banquet” but who was—you’d never know it from the music—“unstable and dissolute”; he was “forced to flee from a girls’ school in Upper Franconia where he worked, and was found dead shortly thereafter”).

This is the product of collaboration, between The Teares of the Muses (The New York University Collegium Viol Consort), soprano Kathleen Cantrell, and the Ghostlight Vocal Quartet. Teares of the Muses’s Director Margaret Panofsky played first treble viol and first bass viol, directing from the chair; Collegium musicians are Caroline Marris and Christina Brandt-Young (treble viol and bass viol), Jeremy Brandt-Young and Carlene Stober (bass viol); and John Cantrell (organ and percussion). Panofsky selected the music, provided the notes, and did considerable musicological research to ensure authenticity but also applied some creative interpretation to the carols. Panofsky wrote and performed the treble variations for the various pieces.

The timbre is soft and sweet, but serious and soulful; and richly resonant, from being performed at St. Michael’s. Cantrell's voice is very special, catching just the feeling of the old music, and I like how the Ghostlight Vocal Quartet harmonizes with her sound. The treble viol playing on the first two carols, by Michna, is gorgeous; the treble viol's voice and Cantrell’s voice merge and then play off wonderfully. Same for the three later Michna Christmas Carols. The first of them, "Zvani...," has a perky plucking motif and a sort of cheerfulness. The one next after is nicely cheerful too, yet mellow. The viol playing is sublime, rings out just right; the music between second and third stanzas is a nice little surprise for the listener.

The pieces are all rich and intricate. Across them all, however, what I did not quite hear is "joy"—even in “In Dulce Jubilo,” which is more “dulce” than “jubilant.” This is not a criticism, it is praise of how true the performance is to the music! Especially Baroque religious music carries forward a medieval attitude about religion: that religion is serious, and life is a prison. Even Christmas music is never just-plain-happy. (Besides, wasn’t the “happy Christmas” idea invented in the nineteenth century?)

The Funck Suite in A Minor feels elemental, as it moves from walking to running and then dancing; and you can hear the intention of it being happy, and the little “Ballo” ends it sweetly! The Capricornus is a good piece to show off; the CD’s notes say the choice to combine treble viol and soprano is anachronistic, but it works very well in how the singing and viol play off each other; I like this piece a lot. Also the Rovensky arrangement, with the repeated bouncy little same notes, is tonally thoughtful and sweet, and the viol just sings in the slow part near the end. Michna's Magnificat is simple but rich (and it is nice for Cantrell to be able to relax from Czech into Latin); Cantrell and the Ghostlight team are very good together here. The final three carols close the whole in a lively brio, as joyful as it seems possible to make this music be. My favorite is the last—it dances, the viols are singing, the poem is witty as well as sweet, and the composer has caught the somewhat sassy spirit of the words as well as a happy cheerfulness that might, for the end, be called joy!

The wholeness of the performance was accidentally highlighted for me when the CD started re-playing to the start—I thought, wow, the tone of this thing changed! It achieves a progression from the more thoughtful through to the more joyful as the pieces flow.

—Rich Jacobs for Amazon, 2014

Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia, Audio CD

Here is a tranquil Bohemian Christmas in a stormy century that even Europeans like to forget; that is what makes the recording so utterly poignant and sweet! It was a brutal century of Brecht's "Mother Courage" and the dictator Oliver Cromwell, of Louis XIV's abuse of Protestants unequaled until Adolf Hitler's Holocaust. It was, in short, the darkest of times with only a few shining lights. But isn't that part of what Christmas is all about? Yes, the CD arrived late for 2013 but this Czech Christmas music is timeless - or for any time you're feeling the world is too much with you.

Here is a tranquil Bohemian Christmas in a stormy century that even Europeans like to forget; that is what makes the recording so utterly poignant and sweet! It was a brutal century of Brecht's "Mother Courage" and the dictator Oliver Cromwell, of Louis XIV's abuse of Protestants unequaled until Adolf Hitler's Holocaust. It was, in short, the darkest of times with only a few shining lights. But isn't that part of what Christmas is all about? Yes, the CD arrived late for 2013 but this Czech Christmas music is timeless - or for any time you're feeling the world is too much with you.

I suggest you purchase this CD for the reason I have - it is a welcome antidote to the grandiose and saccharine sound of Christmas present.

—Steven Freygood for Amazon, 2014

Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia, Audio CD

Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia. The Teares of the Muses, the New York University Collegium Viol Consort: Margaret Panofsky, director and viols; Kathleen Cantrell, soprano; John Cantrell, organ and percussion; Ghostlight Vocal Quartet. Recording 2013, The Teares of the Muses.

February seems like an odd time to review a CD of Christmas music. However, there is no problem recommending The Teares of the Muses (with viol players Margaret Panofsky, director, treble and bass viol; Caroline Marris and Christina Brandt-Young, treble and bass viol; Jeremy Brandt-Young and Carlene Stober, bass viol) CD of Christmas music from 17th c. Bohemia for Christmas 2014. In spite of being one-quarter Czeck myself, I had never heard of the featured composer is Adam Michna (1600-1676), who is considered in his own country to be the equivalent of Germany’s Schütz or Italy’s Monteverdi. Michna (more formally Adam Václav Michna z Otradovic) belonged to an aristocratic family of musicians, many of them trumpeters; he himself, as well as being a composer, was the owner of a fine wine cellar and tavern. He lived in his hometown of Jindrichuv Hradec near Prague for most of his life. His music bears the mark of Italian and German influence. Writing exclusively in the sacred genre, he published in 1654 Sacra et litaniae, a collection which included masses, a magnificat, and such works as the Alma Redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina which appear on this recording. He also composed simple four-part carols, setting his own poetry. These carols were intended for use by churches lacking the funds to put on more lavish productions. Those included in this recording come from his 1647 collection Ceská Mariánska Musika (Church Music for the Virgin Mary).

The textures of Michna’s Latin compositions are basically antiphonal, with soprano declaiming and chorus responding either with a repetition of the same text or carrying the well-known text forward. Mass IV with which the recording opens begins with solo soprano and continuo bass viol and organ, which alternates with four-part chorus accompanied by viols. This antiphonal quality never bogs down or becomes dull; the solo voice of Kathleen Cantrell, consistently lovely, is set very effectively by the answering viols and voices. The mass itself exhibits an interesting evolution of structure. The Kyrie and Agnus are thematically linked, presenting the same opening phrase. The Gloria and Credo are each preceeded by chant, and the Credo especially at “crucifixus” and “ressurexit” offers noticeable text painting. The Sanctus is a brief splash of color. Alma Redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina likewise alternate between solo voice and chorus, with the interval between them much shorter in the Salve Regina. There are moments when the soprano soars, as at “O dulcis Maria,” and occasional chromatic passages for the chorus, “Virgo prius” in Alma and “gementes et flentes” in Salve. The Magnificat, also set for solo voice and chorus, opens with a simple statement in the soprano in triple meter, outlining a major triad from above beginning with a falling fifth; this “magnificat” theme is reiterated at moments throughout the piece, a very unusual effect which is very successful in unifying this lovely work.

Michna’s carols are also delightful. The Teares of the Muses has chosen to perform them with soprano and basso continuo and a consort of viols, including instrumental verses in which the treble viol adds vibrant diminutions to the top line. The first set of two, “Pisen advent” (Advent Song) and “Pozadreavení Detatha Jezise” (Greetings to the Baby Jesus) appear to be a duple/triple setting of the same tune. Michna’s poetry has a striking purity and clarity of image, well conveyed by the simplicity of the musical settings. The next three songs, “Summons to the Creche,” “Another Song about the Nativity,” and “Summons to all Creation” also suggest an interconnection of theme.

The recording also includes a work by Bohemian native Samuel Capricornus, Adesto multitude coelestis exercitus, scored for soprano, treble viol and continuo. The piece begins with an exalted injunction to the heavens to praise the baby, becomes briefly solemn, and then moves more cheerfully through a litany of praise to the end, noé, noé, noé.

Instrumental works, mostly German, alternate with the vocal sets. Following Mass IV are the first five movements of Johann Michael Nicolai’s C Major Suite, here performed with continuo organ and a continuo bass viol. After the first Michna carols, Michael Praetorius’s 2-3-and 4-part settings of In dulci jubilo are performed on viols – a welcome inclusion as a reference to familiar Christmas music, and set forth with simplicity and elegance. David Funck’s Suite in A minor follows the more contemplative texts of Alma Redemtoris and Salve Regina. A somber Christmas carol by Vaclav Holan Rovensky (1644-1718) is played by three viols; the descending stepwise theme invites lovely suspensions and short sighing phrases, reitereated again and again. As a conclusion, the treble viol takes the tune alone for a final haunting rendition.

Throughout the recording, special attention is paid to ornaments. Overlapping between the voices, often one of the upper parts cadences before the other with a trill, followed by the other with a separate trill, emphasizing the suspensions that frequently occur; this is especially noticeable in the sonorous textures of the viol music by Nicolai and Funck. Trills are generally started on the note itself rather than the upper neighbor; this offers a distinctive expressiveness which brings out the formality of the music while remaining playful. An effect in the Funck sonata, a written-out tremolo at the eighth note, is used elsewhere in the recording in improvisatory ways, such as in the carol by Rovensky.

The final set of three pieces includes two carols, sung with viols, by Rovensky, and a lively syncopated ear-catching tune by Jan-Josef Bozan (1644-1716), performed instrumentally, which includes solos for drum, treble viol and bass viol. The final carol, “Graceful doves from the ark,” is, unlike most of the carols, in a major key, with a melody of not much more than the compass of an octave. Its simplicity as it vows to welcome the new child is a fitting end to this Christmas CD of music from a distant world.

—Hannah Davidson, Viola da Gamba Society of America Newsletter, 2014

Narození Pána Krista: Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia, Audio CD

Narození Pána Krista
The Teares of the Muses: Margaret Panofsky, director and viols; Kathleen Cantrell, soprano; John Cantrell, organ and percussion; Ghostlight
Recorded in June of 2013

Narození Pána Krista (Christmas Music, 17th-Century Bohemia) is the most recent CD of the Teares of the Muses, a viol consort affiliated with New York University and directed by Margaret Panofsky. This CD, a successful collaboration with soprano soloist Kathleen Cantrell, organist and percussionist John Cantrell, and the vocal quartet Ghostlight, brings to light music of Bohemian composers relatively unknown to aficionados of 17th- and 18th-century music.

Half of the disc is devoted to works by Adam Václav Michna of Otradovice, a composer deserving of the recognition this recording brings to his music. Michna’s Mass IV, from the collection Sacre et Litaniae of 1654, is written for soprano, vocal quartet, and an unusual accompanying ensemble consisting of three bass viols and continuo. The resulting blend of this rich consort with continuo organ produces a beautiful backdrop for the vocalists. Ghostlight supports Cantrell’s lovely, clear tone with a balanced sound and sensitive phrasing. The solo soprano voice and the quartet trade phrases, moving in and out of the texture seamlessly.

The consort of viols transitions from an accompanying role to a featured role in compositions by David Funck and Johann Michael Nicolai. The Suite in A Minor by Funck is particularly successful, a wonderful work certainly worthy of the concert stage.

Adding a nice balance to the more serious, sacred works on the disc are sets of carols for Advent and Christmas. The Czech language is beautiful to listen to in these strophic tunes nicely sung by Kathleen Cantrell. The carols, charming on their own, are enhanced even more by the variety created within the strophic framework. This includes frequent insertion of instrumental verses, some with divisions added by treble viol, some with plucked rather than bowed accompaniment, and some with percussion. The lively rendition of “Veselym hiasem zpivejme” is particularly engaging.

Narození Pána Krista is a welcome addition to the realm of recorded music appropriate for the Christmas season. A next step would be to make this unusual and beautiful music available to vocalists and players of the viol in publication.

—Patricia Halverson, Early Music America, Summer 2014

"Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La," Concert Review

A viol trio concert is a rarity here, so I hurried to the Broadway Mall Art Center at 96th Street (21 June) to hear 27 works by Gibbons, Ferrabosco, Tompkins, Josquin des Prez, Byrd and others played by the Teares of the Muses Trio. the ensemble is led by treble violist Margaret Panofsky, a New York early-music advocate, and she was partnered by two of her students, Christina Brandt-Young and David Fenton, on bass (later treble) and tenor viols respectively. The small space proved an ideal venue for these instruments. As listeners, we could appreciate the drama and colour available in the combination despite its intimate tonal character, and the players, located in a semi-circle. proved an expert ensemble that produced a well-blended euphonious sound. The programme was divided into eight sections with the briefest of pauses. Despite the dominance of A minor, the ear was entranced by the fantasies of Gibbons, Byrd and Tomkins, and charmed by the more familiar song transcriptions.

—Dennis Rooney, The Strad, September, 2009

Ein Lämmlein: 17th-Century German Passion Music, Audio CD

The Teares of the Muses, the New York University Collegium Viol Consort, directed by Margaret Panofsky, with Kathleen Cantrell and Campbell Rightmyer, sopranos and Morwaread Farbood, organ, has just released its CD Ein Lämmlein: 17th Century German Passion Music. The CD is both very well constructed and very moving in meditations on the death of Christ and its significance. The viol consort (Margaret Panofsky and Caroline Marris, treble; David Fenton, tenor; Jeremy Brandt-Young, bass; Christina Brandt-Young, continuo bass) has been in residency at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in New York City since 2007; members include both NYU faculty and students and NYU community viol players.

The central work on the CD, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld, is a lament in five sections on Christ's death, written by Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665), for two sopranos, viol consort and continuo. The opening work, O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid!, for the same combination, is also by Capricornus; the two pieces were published in 1660 in a volume titled Zwey Lieder von dem Leyden und Tode Jesu (Two Songs on the Suffering and Death of Jesus). The works of Capricornus are not well known, although according to the article in New Grove, they are deserving of more study and performance. Like Schutz, who praised his work, and Tunder, Capricornus often chose to employ the viol consort with his vocal textures. He is known to have written theatre music, now lost; however, his gift for expressive detail is evident in the two works presented here.

The two texts are by different poets. The first, O Traurigkeit, was written by Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (1591-1635), a Jesuit priest; Ein Lämmlein is by Paul Gerhardt, poet and hymn writer. The texts share an exclamatory quality, setting off emotional gestures: Oh, great woe! Oh, sweet mouth! Oh wonder! O Traurigkeit has a simple structure of eight five-line stanzas with consistent rhyme and meter. The opening sinfonia is repeated after the fourth stanza. Capricornus does not linger over the text; after an opening duet, each voice has a solo verse, delivered almost conversationally in spite of the solemnity of the subject: the sorrow of Christ's death, and the sins of mankind. In verse five, there is a striking harmonic crunch on the word "mourn" (beklagen); in verse seven, the viol consort is brought in, making brief exclamatory exhalations as the body is lowered into the grave with gentle triplets from the singers.

Ein Lämmlein, a longer work, has greater variety; a basic ten line stanza is established and then disturbed in the first two sections. The opening section, the longest, contains a bit of dramatic action: God asks Jesus to go forth and bear the sins of his children, and Christ responds that he is willing to carry the load. The second verse, "O Wunderlieb, O Liebesmacht!" marvels at Christ's sacrifice; the two stanzas are shorter. The viols again repeat their introductory sinfonia between the two verses, and then play in the second verse, highlighting the falling gestures of the voices at the pouring forth of the Lamb's noble blood. The final three sections are a personal response to the sacrifice and love that the crucifixion represents; the speaker desires to keep Christ as a friend, to relinquish "the gold of Arabia" and its spices, to be nourished and guided by Christ, and finally at death to be placed at his side: the "beautifully bejeweled bride" is splendidly bedecked by the full consort of viols.

These two works, each full of interest, easily stand by themselves; however, the CD is enhanced still further with works for viol consort (one also with voice) by a variety of contemporaneous German composers, between each section of the vocal music. After the final chord of O Traurigkeit, the viols enter with a chord of almost identical sonority, thus beginning Schein's Suite No. 1 from Banchetto Musicale. The ensuing instrumental texture (viols out from under wraps) is further enlivened with ornaments on the repeat—trills starting on the note; graceful turns and connecting passagi, carefully considered and placed, are evident throughout the recording, and suggestive of a distinctly Germanic style. After the dialogue between God and Jesus, the Intrad and Lamento by David Funck provide a brief but likewise dramatic interlude, with fast-slow, stop-start motion, suitably exclamatory. The third interlude, transcribed from Scheidt's organ chorale and variation no. 5, Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund, prepares by its use of chromaticism the fourth interlude: Tunder's exquisite An Wasserflüssen Babylon. The opening phrases of the five viols establish a rich tonal world which the singer enters with another, different lament, the hanging of the harps on the willow trees. The final interlude, a small gem from the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani (1622-1683), O Welt, ich muss dich lassen (Oh world, I must leave you) borrows its melody from another famous song of leavetaking, Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.

From the first, the singers captivate with expressive, open, wonderfully blended sound. The themes of the recording are complex and interesting, and these singers make repeated listening a real pleasure. The continuo team is also very fine; the bass viol is consistently attentive to the gestures of the music. The viol consort functions impressively as a single entity, coordinated at repeats and moments of heightened emotion, yet each individual voice is clear. The liner notes by Margaret Panofsky are thorough and provide a springboard for further research; texts and translations are well laid out and easy to follow. Although passion music is associated with a specific time of the year, the uplifting quality of the music and performance on this CD belongs to a timeless season.

—Hannah Davidson, Viola da Gamba Society of America Newsletter, December, 2011

Ein Lämmlein: 17th-Century German Passion Music, Audio CD

Can there be such a thing as a penitential compact disc? Listening to this beautiful recording seems (as I listen on the shortest, darkest day of the year) as close to an act of penitence in a sacred setting as one might find in this secular age of MP3s and computers. Not for nothing did Bach choose the voice of the viol to speak at the depths of his setting of the John-Passion. The Teares of the Muses have chosen a particularly dark program, structured around a work by Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665) from 1660, the Two Songs of the Suffering and Death of Jesus, divided into six parts, and set for [seven] parts (two voices and four viols [and continuo]). Although Capricornus (born in Bohemia as Bockshorn before concluding his career in Stuttgart) left at least other collections of sacred works, and a variety of instrumental music as well, he remains little-known, so it is good to have this heartfelt reading of music which reveals the composer’s mastery of the expressive possibilities of the chromatic Italian harmonies of the beginning of his century. Sopranos Kathleen Cantrell and Campbell Rightmyer are ideally matched, and their tones are ideal for this music, with an innocent and pure character that blends beautifully with the sounds of the viols. Panofsky has made the wise choice to intersperse the five sections of the second work (Ein Lämmlein) with instrumental numbers, and the first work, O Traurigkeit, is followed by a dark suite from Schein’s Banchetto Musicale. The close recording of the viols adds to the particularly intimate character of the disc. Sadly, gambist David Fenton passed away between the recording and the release.

—Tom Moore, Early Music America, Spring 2012