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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Zwölf geistliche Gesänge (SWV420-431)

Dresdner Kammerchor
Irene Klein, viola da gamba; Sebastian Knebel, organ
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Oct 21 - 25, 2009, Leipzig, MDR (Kleiner Sendesaal)
Carus - 83.239 (© 2012) (60'01")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit (SWV 420); All Ehr und Lob soll Gottes sein (SWV 421); Ich glaube an einen einigen Gott (SWV 422); Unser Herr Jesus Christus (SWV 423); Ich danke dem Herrn von ganzem Herzen (SWV 424); Danksagen wir alle Gott (SWV 425); Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (SWV 426); O süßer Jesu Christ, wer an dich recht gedenket (SWV 427); Die deutsche Litanei (SWV 428); Aller Augen warten auf dich, Herre (SWV 429); Danket dem Herren (SWV 430); Christe fac ut sapiam (SWV 431)

Sandra Bernhardt, Dorothea Jakob, Albertine Selunka, Astrid Werner, Marie Luise Werneburg, Nicola Zöllner, soprano; Bernadette Beckermann, Dorothea Kaiser, Susanne Kupfer, contralto; Stefan Kunath, alto; Oliver Geisler, Friedemann Hoyer, Tobias Mäthger, Clemens Volkmar, tenor; Dirk Döbrich, Matthias Lütze, Felix Rumpf, Felix Schwandtke, bass

One of the virtues of a complete recording of a composer's oeuvre is that those compositions which are seldom, if ever, performed are also included. In the case of Heinrich Schütz it is easy to make a list of recordings of his most brilliant compositions, such as the Psalmen Davids or the various collections of Symphoniae Sacrae and the Christmas and Easter oratorios. Various other collections, such as the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and the Geistliche Chormusik are also well represented in the catalogue. However, there are a number of pieces in his oeuvre which may appear now and then in recordings, but are not that well-known. The music on this disc belongs to that category. All of them have been recorded before, but this is probably the first time that they are recorded together, as they are part of a collection which was printed in 1657. Their strictly liturgical character explains that they don't belong to the canon of Schütz's oeuvre and may even hardly known to lovers of his music.

The collection was put together by Christoph Kittel, who was organist at the court in Dresden. He selected them from Schütz's oeuvre and published them, with the composer's agreement, "to the honour of God and for practical Christian use in churches and schools". They can be divided into three categories. The first six (SWV 420 - 425) are a German mass, the Magnificat and O süßer Jesu Christ (SWV 426 and 427) are for Vespers, the litany (SWV 428) was part of any major service in Lutheran Germany, whereas the last three pieces are written for domestic worship. All the pieces are for voices and basso continuo ad libitum and are dominated by counterpoint. Some are in strict stile antico and can be considered a kind of translation of the style of Palestrina, whereas in other pieces Schütz creates a closer connection between text and music.

The reasons for the publication of this selection from Schütz's oeuvre are various. First of all, Schütz wanted to provide small choirs with good music for common use in the liturgy. He once heard the litany performed in several places "contrary to all gracefulness and so slowly and even drawn out as to be so tedious, that one loses all pleasure and devotion in it as a result".

At the same time he and his pupils were concerned about the developments in music. The newest trends were in many ways against the principles of Schütz as he had laid them down in the preface of his Geistliche Chormusik and as they were summarised and explained by his pupil Christoph Bernhard in a treatise. "Christoph Kittel's compilation of motets can be regarded as a kind of soundtrack to Bernhard's treatise", Oliver Geisler writes in his liner-notes. This also explains that these compositions, although from different stages in Schütz' career, show a remarkable stylistic consistency. During all his life Schütz underlined the importance of polyphony as the basis of all music and the need for any would-be composer to study its principles thoroughly. Without it "a work cannot exist, or be worth anything".

In order to understand this repertoire it is probably useful to give some information about the various motets.
The disc starts with Kyrie and Gloria, which were a fixed part of the Lutheran service. This explains the settings of missae breves by German composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 233-236).
The Credo could be performed in several ways, for instance by the congregation singing Luther's hymn Wir glauben all an einen Gott. This was also the practice at the court in Dresden, but here it was preceded by a version sung by the choir, for instance this one by Schütz.
Unser Herr Jesus Christus is the setting of the words of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper; it isn't quite clear when it was used. However, there is evidence that in various communities the practice of the congregation singing these words was established during the 17th century. At the court this responsibility could have been passed on to the choir.
Ich danke dem Herrn is a setting of Psalm 111, and was sung during the communion. It was another fixed part of the liturgy.
Danksagen wir alle Gott is on a text by Johann Spangenberg (1545), after the medieval Christmas sequence Grates nunc omnes. It was used at the end of the communion. Schütz' setting is riminiscent of the close of his Weihnachtshistorie. What we know about the liturgy at the Dresden court suggests that these first six pieces constitute an entity.

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren is the German translation of the Magnificat which was a fixed part of the Vespers. Schütz has divided his setting into five sections, each of which ends on E. This suggests that at these moments the congregation could sing a hymn, in accordance with the time of the year. We see this practice also in the 'Christmas version' in E flat of Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat.
The text of O süßer Jesu Christ is by Johann Heerman (1630), after the hymn Jesu, dulcis memoria by Bernard de Clairvaux. It had become common practice to sing a hymn or perform a sacred concerto after the Magnificat, and O süßer Jesu Christ, set for double choir, is probably written for this purpose.
The last piece which was meant to be used during the liturgy was Die deutsche Litanei, a text by Martin Luther after the litany which was used in the church before the Reformation. Although Schütz hasn't indicated a split of the choir into two opposing sections, Rademann has opted for an antiphonal performance: one group sings the sequence of texts whereas another group answers with the prayers "have mercy upon us" and "o hear us, we beseech thee Lord".

As we have seen these motets were written "to the honour of God and for practical Christian use in churches and schools". The last three pieces are especially aimed at the latter. Aller Augen warten auf dich, Herre (All our eyes do wait, O Lord, upon thee) is the Benedicite before, Danket dem Herren (The Lord be praised) the Deo gratias after the meal. Christe fac ut sapiam is an anonymous text, the only one in Latin in this collection, and therefore definitely written for use at schools where Latin was part of the curriculum. It is another double choir piece, and a prayer for wisdom: "Wisdom grant me, O Christ". One could imagine this piece being sung at the end of the day.

As one can see this collection of motets not only gives us insight into Schütz' compositional ideals - which we also meet in the Cantiones Sacrae and the Geistliche Chormusik - but also the liturgical and extra-liturgical practice in Lutheran Germany in his time.

The Dresden Kammerchor gives pretty much ideal performances of these compositions. The sound of the choir is transparent, which - in combination with a perfect diction, articulation and pronunciation - results in an optimal delivery. That is one of the most crucial elements in any performance of Schütz' music. Rademann has found the perfect approach to this repertoire, making a subtle but telling difference between the pieces in purely stile antico and the pieces with some text expression. In the former he keeps the choir at more or less the same dynamic level, whereas in the latter various elements in the text are singled out, for instance through dynamic accents.

This repertoire will probably not appeal to a general audience, not even of lovers of early music. One has to have some sensitivity towards the liturgical function of this music and the various texts which Schütz has set to music. This repertoire needs very attentive listening. Those who are willing to open up to this kind of music will be richly rewarded.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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