musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1685 - 1672): "Heinrich Schütz Edition"

Cappella Augustana; Il Sonar parlantea
Dir: Matteo Messori

rec: July 2003 [CD 1-5], March 2004 [CD 6,7], Polcenigo (Pordenone), Chiesa arcipretale di S. Giacomo; Jan 2004, Bedonia (Parma), Quadreria del Seminario [CD 10]; March 2004, Montarsiccio (near Bedonia, Parma), Chiesa di S. Martino [CD 8,9]; August 2005, Groppo di Albareto (Parma), Chiesa di S. Pietro [CD 11-14]; July & August 2008, Opawa (Silesia, Poland), Church [CD 15-19]
Brilliant Classics - 94361 (19 CDs) (R) (© 2012) (c16.40')
English liner-notes, texts and English translations available on
Cover & track-list

CD 1/2:
Symphoniae Sacrae I (SWV 257-276)
CD 3-5:
Symphoniae Sacrae II (SWV 341-367); Historia, der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi (Weihnachthistorie) (SWV 435)
CD 6/7:
Cantiones Sacrae (SWV 53-93)
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte I (SWV 282-305)
CD 10:
Il primo libro de madrigali (SWV 1-19)
CD 11:
Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Aufferstehung unsers einigen Erlösers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi (Auferstehungshistorie) (SWV 50)
CD 12:
Historia des Leidens und Sterbens unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem Evangelisten St. Matheum (St Matthew Passion) (SWV 479); Weib, was weinest du (Dialogo per la pascua) (SWV 443)
CD 13:
Historia des Leidens und Sterbens unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem Evangelisten St. Lucam (St Luke Passion) (SWV 480); Es gingen zweene Menschen hinauf (in dialogo) (SWV 444)
CD 14:
Historia des Leidens und Sterbens unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem Evangelisten St. Johannem (St John Passion) (SWV 481); Die sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi (SWV 478)a
CD 15-17:
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte II (SWV 306-337); Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281)
CD 18/19:
Geistliche Chor-Music (SWV 369-397)

[CA] Elzbieta Adamczyk, Kira Boreczko-Dal, Ivana Bilej Brouková, Gabriela Eibenová, Kamila Kulakowska, Marzena Lubaszka, Stanislawa Mihalcová, Anna Mikolajczyk, Magdalena Niebywalska, Anna Niewiedzial, Jana Reiner, Astrid Wernersoprano; Francesca Russo Ermolli, mezzo-soprano; Rolf Ehlers, Nils Giebelhausen, Maciej Gocman, Michel Van Goethem, Vincent Lièvre-Picard, Piotr Lykowski, David Munderloh, alto; Tobias Hunger, alto, tenor; Paolo Borgonovo, Giovanni Cantarini, Luca Dellacasa, Stephan Gähler, Aleksandr Kunach, Hervé Lamy, Robert Pozarski, Michael Schaffrath, Krzystof Szmyt, Gerd Türk, tenor; Lisandro Abadie, Matteo Bellotto, Garrick Comeaux, Gian Paolo Dal Dosso, Harry van der Kamp, Bogdan Makal, Bas Ramselaar, Johannes Schmidt, Walter Testolin, bass; Alberto Stevanin, violin, violetta, viola da braccio; Gianni Meraldi, violin, violetta; Jean-Pierre Canihac, Marie Garnier-Marzullo, Arno Paduch, cornett; Jonathan Pia, trumpet; Luigi Mario Lupo, Rossella Pozzer, fiffare, recorders; Mauro Morini, Ermes Giussani, Roberta Pregliasco, Sebastian Krause, Kentaro Wada, Bernhard Ziesch, Ercole Nisini, Volkmar Jäger, Sebastiano Ricci, sackbut; David Yacus, sackbut, dulcian; Elena Bianchi, Vincenzo Onida, dulcian; Nicola Dal Maso, violone; Florian Weininger, violone, double bass; Dolores Costoyas, theorbo; Matteo Messori, ; Alessandro Orsaria, organ
[SP] Rodney Prada, Fahmi Alqhai, Rami Alqhai, Cristiano Contadin, viola da gamba

When Brilliant Classics announced its Schütz Edition about ten years ago one got the impression that the complete works of Heinrich Schütz would be recorded. The first three volumes appeared within a couple of years, and then the edition seemed to have been foundered. Apparently that was not the case as this set includes the fourth volume which was recorded in 2008. That recording has never crossed my path, though. The fact that all four volumes are now reissued as the Heinrich Schütz Edition suggests that this is all we will get. Some of Schütz's main works are included, but some important parts of his oeuvre are omitted, such as the Psalmen Davids, the Symphoniae Sacrae III and the so-called Schwanengesang. His many independent works and compositions for special occasions are also omitted as is one of his most underrated and largely neglected collections, the Beckerscher Psalter. Do we need to regret that there isn't more? Probably not, considering the weaknesses in these recordings.

The first volume of this project included the two collections of Symphoniae Sacrae which were printed in 1629 in Venice and in 1647 in Dresden respectively (CD 1-5). They are all written in the modern concertante style which was developed in Italy. They are scored for one to three solo voices and basso continuo, with additional melody instruments, mostly two violins. In some concertos Schütz requires an ensemble of sackbuts. The Cappella Augustana largly comprises Polish singers. That is problematic in the Symphoniae Sacrae II: these concertos are written on German texts, and most singers have great problems with the pronunciation. That is not an issue in the Symphoniae Sacrae I which have Latin texts. But here it is the diction which is under par, and which is partly responsible for a mostly rather poor text expression. Some parts in Schütz's music create problems because of their pitch: they are too low for an alto and too high for the average tenor. In some concertos (for instance In te, Domine, speravi, SWV 259) Krzystof Szmyt has considerable problems in hitting the top notes of his part properly. In Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (SWV 348) the alto Piotr Lykowski switches to his chest register to sing the low notes, but that doesn't help all that much. Here a tenor with a good high register is needed, like the French hautecontre. Harry van der Kamp sings all the pieces for bass solo in both collections of the Symphoniae Sacrae, and he is head and shoulders above anyone else in the ensemble. Since this repertoire is bread and butter for him, he is able to impart real meaning to what he sings, through articulation, dynamic shading and the coloration. These are the things which one sorely misses in the performances of his colleagues.

Some aspects of performance practice applied are questionable. In general tempi are too slow. As a result in many cases the rhythmic pulse is underexposed. The Symphoniae Sacrae I were printed in Venice, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were frequently performed in Italy. It is much more likely that they were mostly used in chapels and churches in Germany. Therefore adopting Italian pronunciation of Latin is suspect. The same is true for the choice of an Italian organ in the basso continuo. A German type instrument would have been more appropriate. Matteo Messori uses a large organ, and it is certainly true that as a rule church music was not accompanied on small organs such as are mostly used today. That said, it is by no means certain that the sacred concertos were always performed in church. It is also possible that they were used as 'table music', to be performed during dinner, or in private rooms at court. That makes the use of a small organ or even a harpsichord more plausible. The way Messori uses the organ is sometimes debatable. That is the case, for instance, in Lobet den Herrn in seinem Heiligtum (SWV 350). It is a setting of Psalm 150 in which various instruments are mentioned, like the trumpet, the harp and the timbrel. Messori illustrates these with various stops of the organ, for instance the regal. But Schütz depicts these instruments through musical figures in the vocal part and the two instrumental parts. Adding something in the organ is not only superfluous, it distracts from the illustrative role of the vocal and instrumental parts.

On CD 5 we also find the Weihnachtshistorie. The performance is certainly not devoid of drama. It is damaged, though, by the poor German pronunciation and insufficiently declamatory performance of the part of the Evangelist by Krzystof Szmyt. Moreover, the blending of the voices in some Intermedia is less than ideal. The Intermedium I - the annunciation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds - is losing its effect because the tempo is just too slow.

Volume two can be found on CDs 6 to 10 of this set. These are devoted to three large and important collections of a strongly differing character. CDs 6 and 7 contain the Cantiones Sacrae, printed in 1625 and scored for four voices with basso continuo. They are rooted in the stile antico, but there is a quite close connection between text and music. In his book on Schütz the German scholar Otto Brodde typifies them as sacred madrigals and compares them with the Fontana d'Israel, the collection of sacred madrigals by Schütz's friend Johann Hermann Schein. The choice of texts - a mixture of biblical verses and pre-Reformation meditative poems - points in the direction of performances in the homes of aristocrats rather than the liturgy. That justifies the performance with one voice per part. The four singers in the Cantiones Sacrae are all different from those in the previous recordings, and as a result these performances are much better. The voices blend well, although I would have liked a less direct recording which would have resulted in a stronger ensemble effect. The expression of the texts comes off quite well. A specific matter of interest is the basso continuo part. It seems that Schütz has added it at the request of his publisher. In some performances and recordings it is omitted, and one doesn't get the impression that something is missing. The basso continuo isn't much more than a basso seguente anyway. The Italian pronunciation of Latin is definitely not justified here. Several motets are connected, as indications like prima pars, secunda pars etc show. In this recording there is too much silence between these parts.

The first collection of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte (CDs 8 and 9) was printed in 1636 in Leipzig. They are scored for one to four voices and bc, and written on German texts. The singers are a mixture of 'old' and 'new' as it were, as some of the performers of the first recordings put in an unwelcome return appearance. As a result many performances are unsatisfying. The quality of the interpretations depends on the singers in the respective concertos, but most of them have great problems with the German language. This is especially damaging as in Schütz's music the text is everything. He wasn't nicknamed musicus poeticus without reason. Whereas the singers tend to do too little in regard to dynamics and ornamentation, the basso continuo section often does too much. Schütz's music certainly has theatrical traits and is influenced by the Italian music of his time. But Schütz is no Monteverdi, and here the accompaniment is often too dramatic and distracts from the vocal part.

The madrigals (CD 10) are Schütz's first published collection. It was the direct result of his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli. They are scored for five voices; the last - on a text by Schütz himself - is for eight voices in two 'choirs'. They are performed with apposite text expression, without exaggeration. These performances have two serious defects, though. The first is that a couple of singers use some vibrato which damages the ensemble. The second is the use of the harpsichord as an accompaniment. The score doesn't suggest the use of an instrument. That's not a problem in itself but the harpsichord is by no means the best choice especially when it is as obtrusive as it is here.

CDs 11 to 14, originally the third volume of this project, are devoted to music for Passiontide and Easter. We meet here two sides of Schütz: on the one hand two pieces in the modern concertante style - the Sieben Worte Jesu Christi and the Auferstehungshistorie - and on the other hand the three Passions which bring us back to the stile antico. The Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi dates from 1623. For the part of the Evangelist Schütz keeps the traditional recitation tone, called Easter tone. But he modifies it according to the fashion of the time by introducing Affekt and madrigalisms. This way the Historia loses some of its objectivity in favour of a stronger expression of the dramatic nature of the events and the emotions of the characters figuring in the story. The part of the Evangelist is assigned to the German tenor Gerd Türk, which guarantees a perfect pronunciation. The performance is as a whole isn't really convincing, though. The tempo of the opening chorus seems a little too slow, which is confirmed in the recitation of the Evangelist, which is not as naturally flowing as it should be. Less important syllables get too much emphasis. This wouldn't have happened if a more natural speech-like tempo had been adopted. He is accompanied by viole da gamba; their playing is so dramatic, with such strong dynamic differences, that Türk is almost overpowered from time to time. It seems to me that this style of playing is much more suitable to dramatic works by Italian composers than to the sacred oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz. The same is the case with the Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (CD 14), although here it is a little less extreme and therefore less damaging. The various vocal parts are mostly well sung.

The three Passions (CDs 12-14) date from the latest stages of Schütz's life. There is evidence of performances in 1666, but it is thought that the St Luke Passion was composed first, possibly as early as 1653. The American scholar Daniel Melamed, in his liner-notes for Paul Hillier's recording of Schütz's St Luke Passion, emphasizes the detached character of the Passions. The soliloquents are not supposed to sing with such strong expressive force. It was not Schütz's aim to move the audience, only to recount the story. "The Evangelist's words (...) are intoned in a kind of chant whose melodic contours are modest and whose largely unspecified rhythms are presumably meant to follow stylized speech. (...) In comparison to Bach's music the effect is stark and much less obviously expressive". The performances in this set are different. In particular in the St Matthew Passion Türk emphasizes some words and phrases in the interest of expression. Whether that was his decision or Messori's I don't know. The liner-notes shed no light on the subject. The other two Passions are a little more modest in this respect. But all three would have come off better with a more naturally speech-like rhythm of the part of the Evangelist, which would have resulted in a somewhat faster tempo. In the interest of good pronunciation it was a wise decision, though, to assign the part of the Evangelist to Gerd Türk and that of Jesus to Bas Ramselaar. I am still awaiting really satisfying performance of the Passions; these recordings certainly do not fit that bill.

The second collection of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte is allocated to CDs 15 to 17. It differs from the first collection in that it also includes concertos on a Latin text. All are scored for solo voice(s) and bc. One piece is completely different: Sei gegrüßet, Maria (SWV 333) is a dialogue between Mary and the angel, which is for two solo voices (soprano and alto respectively) and closes with a five-part chorus. Also participating are a cornett and four sackbuts. The German pronunciation is less of a problem here, because the two altos, the two tenors and one of the basses are native German speakers. That in itself doesn't guarantee good performances. Some concertos are done rather well, but on the whole these performances suffer from a lack of expression. There is too little dynamic shading, and too little is done with key elements in the text. Various texts contain dramatic elements, and Matteo Messori tries to make up for a lack of expression from the singers by doing too much in the basso continuo. The use of both an organ and a spinettino in various concertos seems rather exaggerated. The collection ends with the two longest pieces, Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (SWV 336) and Aufer immensam, Deus, aufer iram (SWV 337). Unfortunately they are the least interesting because the singers remain impassive and detached.

On CD 17 we also find the Musicalische Exequien, one of Schütz's most impressive compositions. Only recently I reviewed an outstanding interpretation by Vox Luminis, where you can find more information about this piece. The performance by the Cappella Augustana is certainly not bad; in fact, it is one of the better parts of this set. The problem is that the singers don't make enough of the text. There is too little text declamation, and dynamically and rhythmically the performance lacks profile and contrast. These features also undermine the performances of the Geistliche Chor-Music which takes up the last two discs. With this collection which was printed in 1648, Schütz pays tribute once again to his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli. In his preface he emphasizes the importance of counterpoint. These motets can be performed with voices and basso continuo - that is how it is performed here - but also with instruments playing colla voce. This version is interesting in that it is the only one available - as far as I know - in which all the motets are sung with one voice per part. That in itself inclined me to endorse this performance, but unfortunately the overall standard achieved is just not good enough. One of the prerequisites of a performance with one voice per part is that the singers are outstanding soloists and can also sing as an ensemble and make their voices blend. That is not the case here. The singers are good at best or mediocre at worst, but none of them is outstanding. The sopranos make little impression and their voices are pretty bland. They seem not able to express the text. The two tenors are better as is evident from Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit (SWV 392). A major problem is the slow tempo in most of the motets. In many cases it seriously undermines the rhythmic pulse and damages the lively character of the joyful motets. The rhythmic contrasts in Die mit Tränen säen (SWV 378) are hardly conveyed.

Let me sum up. The initiative to record a major part of Schütz's oeuvre for a budget label is admirable. The liner-notes show that Messori has invested much time and energy in this project. The performances are sympathetic but unfortunately mostly not of a standard that brings them up to the competition. The overall quality of the singers is just not good enough, and the many changes in the line-up - sometimes for the better - lead to problems with ensemble. You can't just put together a number of singers and change them at will from one piece to the next. The best performances come from ensembles whose members have worked together on a regular basis for a long time. Moreover, in Schütz's music the text always lies at the heart and that makes unacceptable performances by those who have problems with the pronunciation of German. The earliest recordings of pieces in German are pretty painful. The generally slow tempi, the lack of dynamic accenting and the underexposure of the rhythmic pulse further undermine these performances.

Some music lovers unfamiliar with Schütz's music will probably be tempted to purchase this set. I am afraid that it will not convince them that it is worth exploring. Schütz is one of my favourite composers, but I was regularly rather bored while listening to this set. If you want to become acquainted with Schütz's music you are probably better off spending a little more money on first-rate recordings. So let me just give some alternatives.
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and Cantiones Sacrae: Weser-Renaissance/Manfred Cordes (CPO)
Symphoniae Sacrae I: Concerto Palatino (Accent); La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (deutsche harmonia mundi)
Symphoniae Sacrae II: La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (Sony); the Purcell Quartet (Chandos)
Weihnachtshistorie: Gabrieli Consort & Players/McCreesh (Archiv; especially recommendable because of the liturgical context); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken (deutsche harmonia mundi). I also would like to mention the recording of the Weihnachtshistorie and the Auferstehungshistorie on one disc with the Kammerchor Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius (Sony). The latter work is also available with Concerto Vocale (René Jacobs; Harmonia mundi) and Weser-Renaissance (CPO).
Geistliche Chormusik: Knabenchor Hannover/Heinz Hennig (deutsche harmonia mundi); Dresdner Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Rademann (Carus); Weser-Renaissance (CPO).
Musicalische Exequien: Vox Luminis (Ricercar); Collegium vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia mundi)
Il primo libro de madrigali: Cantus Cölln (Harmonia mundi)
The Passions are not available as yet in satisfying recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Cappella Augustana

CD Reviews