One of the truly great hidden treasures in Christmas music is Hugo Distler's otherworldly masterwork Die Weinachtsgeschichte, Op. 10 (The Christmas Story). Composed in 1933 for four-part chorus and soloists with no accompaniment, this work reinvents the Baroque form of the Christmas cantata, stripping the standard text and dramaturgy down to their essentials and setting it with a concise, mildly modern, transparently beautiful harmonic language and an efficient design. With its variations on Praetorius' hymn "Est ist ein Ros entsprungen" acting as a kind of ritornello, Die Weinachtsgeschichte has a sound that evokes the snowy landscapes, the quiet and calm of a traditional Christmas in Germany, but is not in itself traditional. Recordings have been made of Distler's setting of "Est ist ein Ros entsprungen" as an individual item with some frequency, sometimes without acknowledging the composer or only identifying the piece as "Traditional." Recorded at least five times in the analog era, but never in digital sound, the best complete Die Weinachtsgeschichte is this Berlin Classics Eterna Collection performance, originally recorded in 1979 by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch and the Thormanerchor Leipzig and issued on the Ars Vivendi imprint.
The Thormanerchor Leipzig, a boy's choir once led by Johann Sebastian Bach, is truly excellent in this recording, and the quality of the boy's choir is a critical element in the performance of Distler's piece; likewise, boy soprano Volker Arndt is superb as the Angel Gabriel in the story. The adult soloists sing very lightly with no grandstanding or other vagaries that might upset the delicate balance of the music. The recording is a little quiet at times, somewhat distant during solos and not fresh as a daisy, but retains some of its sense of stereo separation. Naturally, Die Weinachtsgeschichte remains in need of a high-quality digital recording, but for the time being Rotzsch's performance will do just fine.