In the German-American household of my childhood, the colors of Christmas were deep and rich: dark forest greens, mossy pine-bark browns, and lush burgundies, tinged with subdued golds and the occasional twinkling of starlit snow-white. These colors were not only seen, but also heard in the traditional songs floating through the air during this time of year, many of which have their origins in the Medieval and Renaissance practices of the German-speaking world. Sunday at the First Church in Cambridge, the Boston Camerata’s “In dulci jubilo: A German Christmas”underscored these roots and hues in a way that only that ensemble can: with a compelling narrative of musicological expertise, skilled musicianship, and joyous performance.
It was a cold night, so one could hardly blame the quartet of cornetto and three sackbuts for a shaky start in the balcony as they previewed some of what was to come, while straggling audience members tried to find space in the capacity crowd. Once the main event got underway, though, these instruments, along with recorders, lutes, and viols used in various combinations, provided solid sonorities throughout the evening. They are also much of what gives the music its distinctive sonic character, though not necessarily because the composers and arrangers wrote it that way. Nearly all the works on the program were texted; that is, conceived as songs with words to be sung by human voices. But polyphonic arrangements of the time, especially in Germany and Italy, tended to leave things open in terms of instrumentation. A voice (or part) could be just that: someone singing; but it could also be an instrument that plays in the same range (with the player often adding ornamentations), or a combination of both. This built-in flexibility was highlighted in the many arrangements of Christmas tunes by Michael Praetorius featured, most notably the jaunty performance by the entire ensemble—voices and instruments—of his take on Nicolai’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The group took advantage of it in other works, too, leading to some startlingly lovely combinations: Arnold Schlick’s three-part Maria zart was given gentle intimacy by tenor Daniel Hershey, recorder player Steven Lundahl, and lutenist Nathaniel Cox; and the four-part version of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by Melchior Vulpius arrived in a stunning fashion from sopranos Camila Parias, Anne Azéma, and Deborah Rentz-Moore, along with Lundahl on the tenor recorder, epitomizing the “crystalline purity” of the music described in the printed notes.
Instrumental texture was just one part of the story, though. The show opened with bass John Taylor Ward’s confident solo rendition of a 15th-century liturgical word-game song, after which much of the audience clapped. Then Parias, Azéma, and Rentz-Moore sang a 14th-century motet with ringing clarity, followed by more clapping. After about the fourth work and the spoken texts interspersed among them, the clappers realized that doing so after every piece was disrupting a carefully crafted narrative flow; that, like most Boston Camerata events, this was more than just a concert, it was a program with multiple story arcs. The Christmas story itself was, of course, being related; but it really felt like just the backdrop for other, more musicological tales. There was the one about how approaches to melody and harmony changed dramatically in this part of the world between 1300 and 1500. It was told, for instance, by a beautifully beat-less monophonic rendition of Syt willekommen from around 1380, followed by a three-part version full of the angular phrases, happenstance harmonies, and hollow cadences typical of the late 14th century, which themselves were in stark contrast to the rich, full thirds and four-part depths of the next work, Ludwig Daser’s Et verbum caro, written about a century and a half later. Similar trios of pieces told tales of imitative techniques, such as the three different arrangements by Praetorius of In dulci jubilo; and of antiphony, such as Johannes Walter’s modestly ambitious setting of Joseph lieber Joseph mein, followed by Lampertus de Sayve’s more effective Ave Maria, and finishing with Orlando di Lasso’s masterfully powerful Resonet in laudibus. Even the history of the Reformation was given an implied nod: the purely Latin works we heard are musically complex, requiring the skills and artistic touch of the professionals onstage. Many of their German counterparts, however, are more direct and accessible, allowing Director Azéma to get the audience up and singing along with some of the well-known songs. It was a gesture of group participation in the sacred that old Martin Luther would very much have appreciated.
Just before the evening began, I had read another breaking story from modern-day Germany about a truck plowing through a crowd at a Weihnachtsmarkt in Berlin. My heart sank, I thought of family that live there, and those wonderful Christmas colors briefly took on a darkness that I never knew growing up. But the Camerata, through their musical and narrative presentation, and in their warm and open stage presence, has a way of reminding us that, for all our destructive tendencies, we humans can be a magnificently creative species. By the end of the evening, those colors shown more vivid than ever. That is worth some sweet rejoicing.