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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Musicalische Exequien

[I] Musicalische Exequien
La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken
rec: Oct 23 - 25, 2014, Leuven, Predikherenkerk
Accent - ACC 24299 (© 2015) (50'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Aus der Tiefe (SWV 25) [1]; Das ist je gewißlich wahr (SWV 277); Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281); Selig sind die Toten (SWV 391) [3]; Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele (SWV 353) [2]; Zweierlei bitte ich (SWV 360) [2]

Sources: [1] Psalmen Davids sampt etlichen Moteten und Concerten, 1619; [2] Symphoniarum sacrarum secunda pars, 1647; [3] Musicalia ad chorum sacrum, das ist: Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648

Gerlinde Sämann, Marie Kuijken, soprano; Stéphen Collardelle, Daniel Schreiber, altus [high tenor]; Stephan Scherpe, Knut Schoch, tenor; Jens Hamann, Stefan Vock, bass
Sara Kuijken, Marrie Mooij, violin; Marleen Thiers, viola da gamba; Sigiswald Kuijken, violone; Benjamin Alard, organ

[II] Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Musicalische Exequien - Johann Sebastian BACH: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
Dir: Bart Naessens
rec: June 26 - 29, 2017, Leuven, Luca - School of Arts
Et'cetera - KTC 1578 (© 2017) (79'54")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BWV 125); Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Vater unser im Himmelreicha; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Fried- und Freudenreiche Hinfahrt (BuxWV 76); Prelude in g minor (BuxWV 149)a; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281); Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin a 4

Griet De Geyter, Elisabeth Hermans, Kristien Nijs, soprano; Kerlijne Van Nevel, mezzo-soprano; Clint Van der Linde, Jonathan De Ceuster, Bart Uvyn, alto; Adriaan De Koster, Sean Clayton, Yves Van Handenhove, Pieter De Moor, Govaart Haché, tenor; Kai-Rouven Seger, baritone; Drew Santini, Tiemo Wang, Arnout Malfliet, bass
Jan Van den Borre, transverse flute; Benoit Laurent, oboe; Elise Van der Wel, Ellie Nimeroski, violin; Manuela Bucher, viola; Bernard Woltèche, cello; Elise Christiaens, double bass; Bart Jacobs, Bart Naessens (soloa), organ

Score JS Bach
Scores Schütz

The Musicalische Exequien belong among the most frequently-performed pieces from the oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz. As this work is rather short - it takes less than 30 minutes - other music is needed to fill a disc. The two recordings under review here come with different solutions, but they have in common that death - or rather the way Christians in 17th- and 18th-century Germany dealt with it - is the core of their programmes.

The Musicalische Exequien were performed in February 1636 during the funeral of Herr Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß, who had died on 3 December of the previous year. He himself had painstakingly outlined every detail of his funeral. He should be buried in a copper coffin which should be adorned with 22 texts he himself had chosen. They were partly taken from the Bible and partly extracts from various hymns. It is often written that Herr von Reuß himself had asked Schütz to set them to music, but the Schütz scholar Werner Breig believes that it is more likely that Schütz received the commission from his widow and sons.

The Musicalische Exequien are divided into three sections. Part 1 contains the quotations from the Bible and from hymns which are set in the form of a German Mass - it says: Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Missa. The quotations from the Bible are set as little sacred concertos, the hymns as six-part motets. Schütz doesn't use the chorale melodies which were deployed by so many other German composers. Part 2 is a motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe; it was performed after the sermon. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace"). Here Schütz has added that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass, representing two Seraphims and a Blessed Soul, should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

There are several aspects of performance practice which need to be discussed. The first is the number of singers involved. We don't know how many did participate in the performance at the funeral ceremonies. The minimum number of voices required is eight, as the second part is for two four-part choirs. However, there is an option for the addition of a capella, which is ad libitum, meaning that it can be omitted. Sigiswald Kuijken, in his 'Musical Observations' in the booklet to his recording, states that "[with] the word "capella", Schütz and his contemporaries designated the entire ensemble at their disposal, as opposed to smaller ensembles that also played together in certain passages. These "capella", therefore, could also be an ensemble with several musicians to a part or with just one to a part, according to choice or opportunity." I tend to think that he is wrong here, as the addition ad libitum indicates that it is different from the tutti. However, it has no practical consequences: as the capella can be omitted, a performance with one voice per part, as Kuijken preferred for this recording, is entirely legitimate. It furthers the transparency of sound and therefore the intelligibility of the text. On the other hand, some of the contrasts which a performance of the capella episodes with additional ripieno voices would create, are lost here.

A second issue is the choice of voice types. Kuijken states that "until the time of Bach, the allocation of the middle voices of the ensemble, designated by various names (usually tenor or altus), often posed a particular problem. These parts often have a wide range that does not exactly correspond to today's vocal ranges of alto or tenor. A given part usually contains some passages that lie too low for an alto - according to present-day practice - and others that are too high for a tenor." He decided to allocate the parts designed for altus to high tenors (comparable with French haute-contres) rather than male altos. It has a clear positive effect on the performance of these parts. Obviously the choice of pitch has also an effect on the way the singers deal with the range of their parts. Kuijken decided to use the Chorton (a=466 Hz) which was common in sacred music in Schüz's time.

The performance of the Musicalische Exequien is preceded by five further pieces from Schütz's oeuvre, which all deal with the subject of death and redemption, and are used here "to prepare the listener, both spiritually and musically, for the principle work, the Musicalische Exequien." It works wonderfully well, also because of the good choice of the pieces. Aus der Tiefe is a setting of Psalm 130, one of the penitential psalms, known under its Latin title as De profundis. Das ist je gewißlich wahr was written for the funeral of Johann Hermann Schein in 1631. He was Thomaskantor in Leipzig and a close friend of Schütz. Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele is a setting of verses from Psalm 42: "Why are thou cast down, o my soul?" It is a sacred concerto for two voices (soprano and tenor), two violins and basso continuo. Selig sind die Toten is taken from the Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648; its choice is obvious, as the same text is sung by the three voices in the third part of the Musicalische Exequien. From the second volume of the Symphoniae Sacrae we hear another sacred concerto for two voices (this time two tenors), two violins and basso continuo: Zweierlei bitte ich, on verses from Proverbs 30: "Two things I ask of you, deny them not to me before I die".

Sigiswald Kuijken writes that the music of Heinrich Schütz is especially dear to his heart, "because it is both simple and yet always contains considerable expressive depth as well." I am not so sure about the 'simple' aspect, but he is certainly right about its expressive depth. It is a bit disappointing that he has recorded so little from Schütz's oeuvre, because this recording is excellent. He obviously has a good feeling for what this music requires. The choice of singers is spot-on: they all deal impressively with the requirements of this work. There is certainly no lack of recordings, but this one has to be ranked among the very best. The other pieces by Schütz also receive outstanding performances.

The ensemble BachPlus opens with the Musicalische Exequien. There are several differences with Kuijken's performance. One of them is that the ensemble is larger: the capella sections are performed with two voices per part. That also goes for the five-part choir in Part 3; the three voices of the Seraphim and the Blessed Soul are performed with solo voices. In Part 2 the two choirs are also performed with one voice per part. As I have already indicated, both approaches are legitimate. However, Kuijken is right that the text is more intelligible with a smaller ensemble. In this recording it is harder to understand the text without the help of the booklet. But that seems partly due to the acoustic.

The pitch is lower than in Kuijken's performance: a=440 Hz. That has consequences for the performance of the vocal parts: here and there singers seem to have problems with the range of their part, such as the basses in 'Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr'. Interesting is the use of a large organ for the basso continuo; Naessens also plays some short preludes to several sections in Part 1. It is not a historical instrument: it was built by Marcussen in 1978. The temperament is Werckmeister III; mean-tone temperament seems historically more appropriate.

The performance of the Musicalische Exequien by BachPlus is pretty good. Overall I prefer Kuijken, but if you purchase this disc you won't regret it. The rest of the programme is interesting, but not entirely satisfying, for several reasons.

The interesting aspect is that the hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin is used as its thread. This hymn from the pen of Martin Luther was originally intended for the Feast of the Purification (Candlemas). The text is an adaptation of the Canticle of Simeon: "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, as you have said. For my eyes have seen your salvation". Because of its expression of a longing for death, it soon developed into a hymn for funeral services. As early as 1542 it was included in a collection of Latin and German hymns to be used at funerals. Interestingly, Herr Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß had stipulated that the first funeral sermon should take place on 2 February, the date of the Feast of the Purification, and his body was to be displayed for for viewing on the next day, the name day of Simeon.

The same hymn also turns up in the Fried und Freudenreiche Hinfahrt by Dieterich Buxtehude, which he composed in 1674 in commemoration of his father Johannes, who had died on 22 January of that year. The first section is a contrapuntal treatment of the hymn; it consists of two Contrapuncti, each followed by an Evolutio. They are in three parts; the cantus firmus is sung by the soprano in the contrapuncti and by the bass in the two evolutios. It is a bit odd that here these parts are sung by three voices in unison. The second section is the Klaglied, a poem in seven stanzas, whose text was probably written by Buxtehude himself. Griet De Geyter delivers an excellent performance, but unfortunately the ensemble follows the bad habit of most performers in omitting a number of stanzas. Here we get only the first and the two last stanzas. This may be understandable in the light of the playing time of this disc, but I would have preferred this piece to be performed complete instead of one of the two organ works, which have nothing to do with the with the subject of this recording.

Mit Fried und Freud is also the starting point of Bach's cantata BWV 125, performed on 2 February 1725. The libretto keeps the first and last stanza of the hymn. The second stanza is inserted in the bass recitative 'O Wunder, daß ein Herz'; the hymn melody is ornamented. The instrumental scoring is for transverse flute, oboe and oboe d'amore respectively, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus the hymn melody is in the upper voice, which is supported by the horn. However, in this performance the horn part is omitted, which is rather odd. The long aria for alto is nicely sung by Clint Van der Linden, and the duet is also given a good performance. The cantata is preceded by a motet on the same hymn by Johann Walter. It is performed by the twelve voices of the ensemble, which are supported by double bass and organ, which is another debatable decision.

To sum up, the performances are mostly rather good, but some of the decisions taken by the performers are questionable or disappointing. As this disc does not contain any music which is unknown - probably with the exception of Walter's motet - this doesn't make it any easier to live up to the stiff competition.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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