This is a splendid CD of four shortish (four, five minute-long) and one substantial (over 40 minutes) pieces for the Easter season by Heinrich Schütz, one of the "holy trinity" of German composers (Schütz, Schein and Scheidt) from the generation before Bach. They're splendidly and sensitively played by the Bremen-based Weser-Renaissance group under their energetic director, Manfred Cordes. Specializing in performances of sixteenth and seventeenth-century music, this versatile ensemble has been in greater and greater demand in recent years. Its composition (in numbers and makeup) varies as the occasion demands. On this recording up to a dozen and a half performers can be heard – variously three sopranos, four tenors, a bass, two violinists, four gambists, and players of chitarrone, harp and positive organ; plus Manfred Cordes, who has a background in philology, music theory and education as well as performing. Germanely, Cordes' doctorate is in the relationship of key to affect in Renaissance music, something which HIP specialists have long felt should be better understood by the wider public. He too is centered in Bremen and is the Dean of the Music Faculty at the Bremen College of the Arts.
The items on this well-recorded CD, made in association with Radio Bremen, are the Surrexit, the Historia, the most substantial work, then three shorter concerti in no other order, really, than to make a persuasive hour's listening with an uplifting finale in the "Alleluja" of Feget den alten. It's music to gladden the soul and at the same time music which provides extensive insight not only into the traditions prevalent in a large provincial German court nearly 400 years ago, but also into the ways in which the new genre of opera (passages in "Und siehe…" in the Historia are distinctly Monteverdian, for instance) with its color, new ways to match words and music and significant advances in interpreting the vernacular scriptural texts rendering them closer to people's understanding in good Protestant fashion. It's also a collection of music that points up just how strong was the influence of Schütz' teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli, with his southern warmth.
Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi is a one of Schütz' greatest achievements in terms of painting a picture in music of the emotions intended by the words. In 1617 Schütz took up the post of Music Director at the court of Dresden and found performing traditions for the Easter period dating back to his predecessor, Johannes Bugenhagen from the end of the fifteenth century; and later in arrangements thereof by Antonio Scandello, who had died a couple of generations before. One senses that the Historia is the result of tensions which his new appointment allowed him to resolve. We do not know whether Schütz decided to make fairly radical and modernizing changes himself, or whether he was commissioned to do so. But modernize the music and settings for Easter festivities he did. Wisely he kept the texts and overall structure and feel of the music… the Evangelist narrative recitative and the way in which two other soloists sang the parts of other characters in the story but without a consistent correspondence of singer to role (only the Evangelist was visible to the congregation, not the two soloists). The expressivity of the music was more important to Schütz. He introduced a basso continuo to accompany the soloists – a gamba (ensemble) for the Evangelist; and a "quiet" organ (Gedackt) for the others. This was a nod in the direction of the recently developed style of opera. Schütz also broke with the tradition of distancing the music from events described through a kind of neutrality. Instead he wrote pictorial, descriptive, colorful music designed to evoke an affective response in the performers and worshippers.
It's intense, highly focused music. At first hearing it might be thought to encompass a narrow sonic range. More attentive listening, however, reveals a much wider – if subdued and somewhat sardonic – palette of musical effects and an ever varying delight of techniques. It's the constant turning by Schütz to make the musical lines and textures accommodate and underline the spiritual significance of the text that one is hearing. It's a similar relationship between thought and sound to the melodies and plaints of, say, the troubadours, or plainchant. There seems no need to leave the ambit in which the music can meaningfully say what it is compelled to say. To listen to the Historia in its entirety and let it sink into one's soul is a searing experience. One feels Schütz has communicated very directly with one. Then to realize that surely such was his intent makes quite an impact.
Surrexit pastor bonus is a vocal-instrumental concerto setting from the Latin Liturgy (the other pieces on this CD are all in German) which also affords Schütz much opportunity to exercise these same descriptive powers. Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben – like Weib, was weinest du, a Resurrection dialog with dramatic potential never missed by Schütz, but sadly now without its closing choral part – comprises two settings of the same text, and was probably written for a funeral. It too is based on verses from St. John's Gospel. Feget den alten Sauerteig aus is another vocal-instrumental concerto on the First Letter to the Corinthians, which in Schütz' times was familiar to everyone as the first reading at Easter setting the tone of sacrifice and ritual for the rest of the event. Like these other, shorter, pieces, it was published later in Schütz's career.
The playing of Weser-Renaissance Bremen is outstanding; the recording – in the Stiftskirche in Bassum – is clean and focused. The balance between singers and instrumentalists is particularly felicitous. Articulation, of course, is precise and unfussy. Useful liner notes are to be found together with the texts in Latin/German and English in the accompanying booklet. So if you enjoy early Baroque chamber vocal and instrumental music of one of the period's undisputed geniuses played with style insight and panache, then this excellent CPO CD is for you. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey