And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
For this selection, I was torn between two stirring acappella performances of the Michael Praetorious arrangement for this German carol. One is by an authentic Austrian quartet called Schnittpunktvokal:
The other is by the British quartet The King’s Singers. The startling purity of of David Hurley’s counter-tenor instantly leapt out and caught my attention in this version:
I couldn’t decide. So, naturally, I consulted Terry Franklin. Meanwhile, knowing that the German text has many variants and a bajillion verses to choose from, I compared rough translations of both texts used, which aren’t quite alike. Read on to find out which version I ultimately chose and why…
First, I wasn’t planning to quote Terry’s analysis but found it so fascinating that I decided it was worth it:
Both of these groups are wonderful. From a purely technical point of view I would probably go with the King’s Singers. Like most of their stuff, it’s almost flawless. The attacks and releases, the matching vowel sounds and vibrato, the blend of all 4 voices… It doesn’t get much better than this.
However, Schnittpunktvokal (which is what I said the last time I got my finger stuck in a door) has that almost undefinable “something” that goes beyond musical excellence: Emotion. One major difference is the key they sang it in, which is significantly lower, and allows the marriage between the Bass and Baritone notes to shine. (I have always said that the way the Baritone part is sung can make a huge difference in the blend of the chord) Pitching the song down a bit allows for the Baritone to be darker in tone.
Another side thought: it looks like the King’s Singers were being miked at some distance by shotgun microphones on a television broadcast. It’s possible that the pitch of the song was raised to get more purchase out of the Bass singer.
There are some negatives with Schnittpunktvokal: unmatching vibratos, and a second tenor that is over-singing a bit, in my opinion, which messes with the blend.
But their positives: incredible dynamics, and lingering ritards, give them a slight edge here, in my view.
Musical excellence — The King’s Singers.
Moving me with that special “something” — Schnittpunk…, Messerschmidt, Farkenhagen…. whatever their name is. Those guys.
I was inclined to agree. However, the verdict was still out on the texts. After some googling and a rough translation provided by Mom (thanks Mom!) I was able to figure out the differences between the two texts. The first point in the King’s Singers’ favor was that they chose the text which indicates Jesus is the rose and Mary has borne it, whereas the other text is the variant which says Mary is the rose. Which is more confusing. However, the other differences were more striking. Essentially it came down to a Protestant versus Catholic contest. And unfortunately the Schnitzel-whatever rendition was the papish one. In one of the earlier verses, their text affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the added verse asks her to intercede for us. The King’s Singers’ extra verse, on the other hand, has much more Protestant sensibilities:
O Jesus, by being born
Out of this vale of tears,
Let Thy help guide us
To the hall of joy
In your father’s kingdom,
As we praise You eternally,
O God, give us that.
In the end, the King’s Singers’ stronger text choice was the deciding factor for me. So theirs is the version that I would choose for this essential collection. Here is my favorite translation of the earlier verses:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
the Rose I have in mind;
with Mary we behold it,
the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
she bore to us a Savior,
when half spent was the night.
Which version do you prefer? Do you agree with my choice?