American Record Guide reviews The Vanishing Nordic Chorale

Musik Ekklesia is a most excellent Indianapolis-based period baroque ensemble that - for this recording - employs more that a dozen instruments and 15 singers, who often perform in small sub-ensembles.  This album - apparently their first commercially-available recording - is an absolutely delightful and nostalgic pastiche of mostly baroque-era vocal-instrumental settings.  When I say nostalgic, I mean mostly for Protestant church musicians like me and early Lutheran music afficionados - because the common denominator for all of these pieces is that they are treatments of Lutheran chorales.  I recognized almost all of the ones offered here - as would any musical Lutheran.

 

Right from the start, Martin Luther - who was powerfully fond of music - insisted that even the humblest and least sophisticated Lutheran parishioner should be able to sing comfortably in church; hence the relative simplicity of early Lutheran chorale and hymn tunes.  Not only did they have to be fairly simple, but appealing and memorable.  With such pervasive cultural forces as Lutheranism and the extensive Hanseatic trade networks drawing northern Europe and Scandinavia together, these melodies quickly spread to the Nordic regions - where, in effect, they became the "pop" music of the day (as they already had in Germany and elsewhere); after all, lots of ordinary people - especially urban folk - got most of their music in church back then.  Many of these sturdy, but often lovely pieces were also sung in homes and on the streets.  And, of course, Nordic immigrants to America brought their favorite chorales with them.

 

In this album, the varied settings are often anything but simple: quite a few of them are heard in fairly sophisticated instrumental or combined vocal-instrumental arrangements by leading composers, like Bach, Buxtehude, Hassler, Pachelbel, Praetorious, Scheidt, Pedersen and Johann Crüger.  Some are given contrapuntal treatments.  Some are for choir - like a few derivative motets and chorale excerpts from cantatas; others for soloists.  All of the languages set are Scandinavian.  The final five pieces are for (or include) baroque organ, based mostly on the ubiquitous 'A Mighty Fortress'.  Balint Karosi performs these immaculately, and on a particularly fine instrument (he also improvises brilliantly on the tune).  Proving the durabilty and appeal of the chorale, we also hear treatments of them from later composers like Charpentier, Mendelssohn, and Nielsen.

 

Instrumentalists, choir, and soloists perform impeccably, with considerable skill, period zest, and palpable sacred spirit.  Sound quality is beyond reproach, and we get solid, informative booklet notes and complete texts.