A Quartet of Christmas Cantatas by Ernst Wilhelm Wolf

A very valuable disc in terms of repertoire, and beautifully performed

A Quartet of Christmas Cantatas by Ernst Wilhelm Wolf

We met the Kölner Akademie (Cologne Academy) under Michael Alexander Willems on another cpo disc a while back in this post: Le Jour variable, four symphonies  by Carl Stamitz. Here they are again in some cruelly neglected music: all four Christmas Cantatas here receive their first recording.

Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792), born in Großenbehringen, near Gotha. was court kapellmeister in Weimar. He was active musically in Weimer for over three decades.  Musically,  his greatest influences were Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the “empfindsamer Stil” and  the works of the Berlin Kapellmeister Carl Heinrich Graun (we looked at Graun's beauiful, fascinating Polydorus, also on cpo, here, and as far as C P. E. is concerned there are s couple of gems covered on Classical Explorer: Harmonia Mundi's Complete String Symphonies,  and Der Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu on Passacaille). Wolf was also a prolific composer whose works were received with admiration by his contemporaries.

There is also a gallant aspect to Wolf's writing that aligns itself with teh early Classical style. While he talks much about C. P E. Bach, his adventuresome aspect is tempered by a mode of expression that sometimes also puts me in mind of the eternally civilised J. C. Bach (the so-called “London Bach”).

The shadow of Goethe also fell over Wolf, as this excerpt from an autobiographical article attests:

I long believed that there was nothing higher in the world than Bach; and a keyboard composer could and must not think of anything else but imitating him. But now here in this land, since Goethe’s arrival, everything has become original; so I thought, you too must also seek to be original.

The four cantatas featured here show elements of the early classical and sensitive styles; the cantata choruses are often homophonic and songlike, polyphonic sections rather rare. All the cantatas prove to be individually-conceived works that testify to the composer's mastery. The cantatas bear witness to the high quality of Protestant church music in the period after Johann Sebastian Bach and illustrate the  value of music within the liturgy. We offer them as an enrichment of the music of Christmas - a nice alternative/supplement to carol discs of which this year we have already featuresd some excellent releases: The Dawn of Grace,  The First Nowell and Wishes and Candles.

The first three Christmas cantatas here are short, around 10 minutes each; but the final offering is nearly 42 minuutes. These are four out of the six known Christmas cantatas by Wolf. The first three were intended for use  in Lutheran servies: each begins with a bipartite chorus followed by recitative and aria (in Seid böse, recitative-aria-recitative), plus concluding chorale in which the audience was expected to join in (so why not join in with the recording at home, in that case?!).

Two clarino trumpets grace the cantatas sporadically. You can hear them with their flecks of brightness in the opening chorus of the first cantata, Willkommen, du sehlich erbetener Tag (Weclome, you day dawned with desire):

Bass Matthias Vieweg is the solloist in the dramatic aria in this cantata, “Vergeben draht die Fürst der Höllen” (In vain the Prince of Hell threatens):

Like the first cantata, Seid böse, ihr Völker (Be evil, you peoples) was written for the second day of Christmas. Intriguingly, the English translations of the booklet notes for this cantata claim it has an “irritating” title  It begins with a bright chorus in which tone of those poor clarino trumpets (Hannes Rux Brachtehorf) has to go so high the note emerges as more of a pop:

The remarkable aria here, after a fine tenor recitative from Georg Poplutz, is sung by the astonishing Norwegian soprano Beate Mordal (despite this track being credited as a bass aria in the track listing - something went awry with the proofreading at this point as the listing also gives not one, but two fourth movements!). Her voice is clarion clear and absolutely beautiful. I see she sings Susanna Figaro; and that must surely be a treat. This aria is full eight minutes long, so fill your boots:


No missing the joy in the choral opening of the  third cantata, Auf, jacuhzet, ihr Christen (Up, rejoice, you Christians), a cantata for the First Day of Christmas. (in another mislabelling, this time on YouTube, this is listed as the sixth movement, despiite being the first of four - and it's not a mislabelling for track number, as it's track 10 on the disc):

The bass aria here makes considerable demands, and baritone Matthias Vieweg is enturely up to all of them. This is an aria of confident faith, and horns replace clarino trumpets in the scoring:

Thw final cantata, Willkmmen, du schönster Tage! (Welcome, you most beautiful of days!) is cast in two parts. Written for the first and second days of Christmas, it is almost a mini-oratorio when performed complete, as here. Klaus Winkler's excellent and detailed notes go in to the potential reasons around this, but there is no doubting the profound beauty of this music. The use of both chorus and solo voices in the opening movement immediately marks out the scope of this cantata:

The second chorus includes some delightful touches for two horns. The recitative, “Dir, Gottes, ew’gen Sohn” is remarkably wide-ranging (the brilliantly attentive Mordal again) which we hear before her aria, the reflective “So lobt ein dürstend Land der milde Tau” (So the mild dew refreshes the thirsty land), a gorgeous movement with some fabulous melismatic writing:

I will leave you to discover the sheer delights of “Zephyretten’ (another soprano aria, now featuring a par of flutes to represent the title’s breezes). Part I ends with the expected chorale (“Gelobet seist du”; Praised be you). But maybe let's hear the beauty Wolf is capable of, in the accompanied recitative that opens the second part, “Dort in der Krippen liegt das Kind” (The child lies in the manger): the strings act as a halo to Nordal’s voice, woodwind crown the lines gracefluly:

The double-cantata includes a remarkable quartet-aria, in which all soloists plus chorus are used:

A very valuable disc in terms of repertoire, and beautifully performed. Mordal is the real disovery among the soloists, though, and I look forward to hearing more from her.

Wolf Christmas Cantatas