Great Christmas Classics: Messiah highlights & choral favourites (CD)

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Various Artists

Joyous and uplifting Christmas music by the four great baroque composers. A musical telling of the Christmas story from Handel's Messiah, Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Schütz's Magnificat and Scarlatti's Christmas Pastoral.

This programme divides into music for the fervent Catholic (Scarlatti) and Protestant (Bach) churches of the eighteenth century, plus music by Handel which, although undoubtedly sacred in nature, probably had a phlegmatic London concert audience in mind. Heinrich Schütz's music was highly influenced in style by the Catholic music of Venice, but he may have had an argumentative protestant audience in Dresden in mind. Bach's famous Christmas Oratorio was first performed in the 1730s in Protestant Leipzig, its trumpets and drums exhorting us to be joyful on Christmas Day.

Scarlatti wrote for Rome, at the very centre of the Catholic church, where, long before in the seventh century, the custom was established in which mass is celebrated three times as the Pope began to celebrate the Christmas office in a number of churches around Rome. During Charlemagne's reign this custom spread throughout his empire but it was only in the nineteenth century that it became usual to celebrate the three masses consecutively.

In reference to the content of the respective Gospels in the Roman missal for these three masses, the faithful came to call the first mass the 'Angels' Mass', the second the 'Shepherds' Mass' and the third the 'Mass of the Divine Word'. The masses are better known under the names of: Midnight Mass, Dawn Mass and Christmas Day Mass.

The Midnight Mass was originally celebrated by the Pope towards midnight in the chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome before a small congregation. Pope Sixtus III had constructed this small chapel in the year 440 to house a crèche which faithfully reproduced the one in Bethlehem.

The celebration of mass at midnight at Santa Maria Maggiore is based on the ancient belief that Jesus was born precisely on the stroke of twelve. We owe this information to the thirteenth century Hungarian Saint Elizabeth. A fourth century Latin hymn, 'Quando Noctis' medium, already reflected the belief that the Messiah was born on the stroke of midnight.

Solemn and impressive with the joyous sound of pealing bells, with light sparkling everywhere and with hymns of joy, Midnight Mass reached its high point with the procession of the Christ Child. Some churches have preserved this custom today, sometimes even conferring on a young couple and their baby the privilege of representing the Holy Family.

Custom has it that the youngest children who are unable to attend Midnight Mass are taken on Christmas Day to see the 'baby Jesus' and to leave their offering for the collection of the Infant Jesus with the 'beautiful angel'.

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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Messiah

1. For unto us a child is born
2. Every valley shall be exalted
3. Rejoice greatly
Amadeus Ensemble conducted by Valentin Radu, David Price, tenor, Jennifer Lane, mezzo-soprano

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1723): Christmas Pastoral Cantata (Cantata Pastorale per la nativita di Nostro Signore Gesu Christo)
4. Introduction
5. Recitative. O Betlemme altera povertà venturoso
6. Aria. Dal ben seno d'una stella
7. Recitative. Preso d'uomo la forma, alle gelide tempre
8. Aria. L'autor d'ogni mio bene
9. Recitative. Fortunati pastori giacchè v'è dato in sorte
10. Aria. Tocco la prima sorte a voi, pastori
Mainz Chamber Orchestra directed by Günter Kehr, Gertraud Stocklassa, soprano

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Magnificat
11. Et exultavit spiritus meus (And my spirit shall rejoice)
12. Omnes generations (All generations shall be exalted)
13. Gloria patri (Glory to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost)
Stuttgart Figural Choir, Stuttgart Bach Orchestra conducted by Helmuth Rilling, Hildegard Rüttgers, alto

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
14. Magnificat
Spandau Kantorei conducted by Helmuth Rilling, Elisabeth Speiser, soprano, Kurt Huber, counter-tenor, Josef Schmalhofer, tenor, Günther Wilhelms, bass

Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio
15. Jauchzet frohlocket (Christians be joyful)
16. Ich will nur Dir zu Ehren leben (Thee alone I would praise)
17. Jesus richte mein Beginnen (Jesus guide my beginnings)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Academy Chamber Choir conducted by Ferdinand Grossman, Erich Majkut, tenor

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