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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Musicalische Exequien, Penitential Psalms

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: April 4 -7, 2008, Osterholz, Kirche St. Marien
CPO - 777 410-2 (© 2010) (63'49")

Ach Herr, straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn (SWV 24) [1]; Aus der Tiefe rufe ich (SWV 25) [1]; Erbarm dich mein (SWV 148) [2]; Herr, mein Gebet erhör in Gnad (SWV 248) [2]; Hör mein Gebet (SWV 200) [2]; Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281)

(Sources: [1] Psalmen Davids sampt etlichen Moteten und Concerten, 1619 [SWV 22-47]; [2] Psalmen Davids, hiebevorn in teutzsche Reimen gebracht, durch D. Cornelium Beckern, 3rd ed, 1661 [SWV 97-256])

Monika Mauch, Manja Stephan, soprano; Beat Duddeck, alto; Detlef Bratschke, alto, organ; Mirko Ludwig, alto, tenor; Knut Schoch, Johannes Weiß, tenor; Job Boswinkel, Dominik Wörner, bass; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Margit Schultheiß, harp; Jörg Jacobi, organ

Heinrich Schütz is generally considered one of the most important composers in German music history. He was also one of Germany's most prolific composers who has left a large corpus of compositions. Only a relatively smal proportion is secular, most of his works are sacred. Whether he ever composed instrumental music isn't known - at least nothing of this kind has come down to us.

It is hard to decide which of Schütz' compositions should be considered his best, as the quality is always very high. But there can be little doubt that his Musicalische Exequien belong to the monuments in music history. That is reflected by the fact that it is often performed and recorded. The German ensemble Weser-Renaissance has an impressive discography to its name, in which German music of the 17th century dominates. Important collections of music by Schütz have been recorded, like the Cantiones Sacrae, the Geistliche Chormusik and the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte. So it was only a matter of time until this work was going to be recorded.

It was 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 in his liner notes Werner Breig states 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 6-part motets. (Schütz doesn't use the chorale melodies as they are still known today.)
Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. 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 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.

My preferred recordings to date were those by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia mundi) and Wolfgang Helbich (Naxos). This new recording doesn't surpass them. Weser-Renaissance has opted for a performance with one voice per part which seems appropriate for the second section, but in regard to the first part Schütz indicates six voices and a capella of six additional voices. This way a clear contrast is created between the concertato passages - on texts from the Bible - and passages in the stile antico, which are set to the hymn extracts. Likewise, the contrast between the 5-part choir and the three solo voices Schütz was aiming at in the third part is underexposed here.

The voices of Weser-Renaissance are excellent, as always, the blending is immaculate and so are diction and pronunciation. But emotionally this performance falls short of what one would expect. Herreweghe's recording is much better in that respect, and although Wolfgang Helbich's choir (Alsfelder Vokalensemble) is a little too large and lacks some transparency, as a whole his interpretation is much more moving than this new recording. For all its qualities that makes this performance disappointing.

In addition five settings of penitential psalms are offered. Two of them are from the collection of Psalmen Davids which was published in 1619. It is an important collection of psalm settings in the style of Giovanni Gabrieli, who was Schütz' teacher and whom he held in great esteem all his life. It was also the first time Schütz set texts from the Bible in the German translation of Martin Luther. They are well performed here, although at some moments I would have liked a stronger expression of the text. The Psalmen Davids have been recorded several times, and in particular the recording by Cantus Cölln is recommendable.

The most interesting part of this disc are the three psalm settings from the Beckerscher Psalter. This collection was first published in 1628 and again in 1640; here the third revised edition of 1661 is used. The texts are rhymed versions of the Psalms, put together and partly written by Cornelius Becker. The settings are in four parts, with the melody in the upper part. Here the stanzas are sung alternately by four voices without accompaniment and by soprano or tenor with chitarrone, harp and organ performing the remaining parts. This music may not appeal to everyone, in particular as some are rather long - five, seven and eleven stanzas respectively - but I find them quite beautiful, and they certainly deserve to be recorded. A good modern recording of the complete set does not exist, as far as I know. In regard to the interpretation, these three psalm settings are the best part of this disc. One could argue that in the stanzas which are sung by a solo voice some ornamentation would not have been amiss. That is certainly the case in the Musicalische Exequien where there is hardly any ornamentation in the concertato sections.

It is a shame this disc doesn't meet all the expectations. Of course, it is quite possible that others may find this reading of the Musicalische Exequien more emotionally satisfying than I. Technically and stylistically there is nothing wrong with it. But for me Herreweghe and Helbich remain first choice.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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