A seasonal staple in churches throughout central Europe since its first performance in 1796, Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass sings out with a sweet celebratory innocence and simplicity of expression that deserves a wider audience.
Originally recorded in 1998, this altogether charming account with Magdalena KoÅ¾ená, then at the beginning of her career, and the period-instrument Capella Regia Musicalis under its founder and director Robert Hugo, is belatedly receiving its first UK release six years after it achieved platinum sales.
KoÅ¾ená approaches Ryba’s vernacular idioms with sure-footed piquancy, eschewing vibrato and ornamentation throughout to treat the vocal line as the de facto folksong it is, even as Hugo foregoes the use of no-less authentic bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy for something altogether sleeker and more immediately digestible.
Each of the nine ‘pastorella’ movements – a succession of solos, duets and four-part ensembles – illustrate the story of the Three Wise Kings and lowly shepherds visiting Christ in the manager. Although customarily sung at midnight services on Christmas Eve, it makes only glancing references to the Liturgy and is a Mass only by association. There’s an appealing naivety in the texts and a pleasing roughness to the music in places that serves to solidly root the work in rural Bohemia, the Kyrie’s organ salutation (in the Church of Our Lady of the Convent, Kladruby, near the western border of the Czech Republic) deftly mimicking a hurdy-gurdy.
Dotted with occasional echoes of Die Zauberflöte (perhaps not altogether unintentional given Ryba was a contemporary of Mozart’s) the Mass can’t compete in terms of profundity, but it exerts a quietly charismatic, child-simple allure all of its own that more than captivates.
New here are three free-standing pastorellas. Cut from the same beguilingly ingenuous cloth, KoÅ¾ená delivers them with obvious conviction, the Czech band accompanying with a discretely poised stylistic certainty that persuades with its clean-cut and understated directness.
Two modern-instrument recordings – also from Czech forces, with Frantisek Xaver Thuri conducting for Naxos and Václav SmetáÄek on Supraphon – offer richer, lusher readings that unapologetically indulge sentimentality, but they happily serve as interesting counterweights to the authentically immediate and wholly seductive account on offer here. --Michael Quinn
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