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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): "Schwanengesang"

Dresdner Kammerchor; Instrumental ensemble
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: August 1 (live) & August 2 - 3, 2017, Heilsbronn, Münster
Carus - 83.275 (© 2017) (79'05")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Königs und Propheten Davids Hundert und Neunzehender Psalm in Eilf Stükken nebenst dem Anhange des 100. Psalms: Jauchzet dem Herrn! und Eines deutschen Magnificats: Meine Seele erhöbt den Herrn (SWV 482-494)

[I] Dorothee Mields*, Albertine Selunka, Nicola Zöllner, soprano; Julia Hebecker, Maria Stosiek, contralto; David Erler*, alto; Georg Poplutz*, Christian Aretz, Markus Klose, tenor; Martin Schicketanz*, Dirk Döbrich, Philipp Schreyer, bass
[II] Gerlinde Sämann*, Sandra Bernhardt, Birgit Jacobi-Kircheis, soprano; Franziska Neumann, Aneta Petrasová, contralto; Stefan Kunath*, alto; Tobias Mäthger*, Georg Güldner, Claudius Pobbig, tenor; Felix Schwandtke*, Timo Hannig, Georg Preißler, bass
(*) soli
Friedrike Otto, cornett; Sebastian Krause, Julia Nagel, Fernando Günther, sackbut; Clemens Schlemmer, dulcian; Margret Baumgartl, violin; Juliane Laake, Sarah Perl, Frauke Hess, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller, Marthe Perl, violone; Stefan Maass, Stephan Rath, theorbo; Michaela Hasselt, organ

Heinrich Schütz, the 'father of modern music', as he was called, reached the exceptional age of 87. Several times towards the end of his life he had asked to be released from his duties as Oberkapellmeister at the court in Dresden, but to no avail. He indicated that he felt it increasingly hard to fulfill all his obligations, and that composing music became more and more difficult as well. In the early 1670's he started to make preparations for his funeral. He asked his former colleague - probably pupil - Christoph Bernhard to compose a motet on the text which he had chosen for the sermon at his funeral. It was the 54th verse from Psalm 119: "Deine Rechte sind mein Lied in meinem Hause" (Thy statutes are my songs in my home). Despite his age and his deteriorating health he undertook the huge task of composing the whole psalm himself. The result was what was called in his circle the Schwanengesang (the swan song). Schütz added two other works: the Magnificat on the German text of Martin Luther, and a setting of Psalm 100. The latter is especially interesting, as this Psalm was also the first which Schütz had set (SWV 36a); a revision of this piece was later included in his collection of Psalmen Davids. By including a later setting - although of an older date than the Schwanengesang - he came full circle. The official title of the entire collection was Königs und Propheten Davids Hundert und Neunzehender Psalm in Eilf Stükken nebenst dem Anhange des 100. Psalms: Jauchzet dem Herrn! und Eines deutschen Magnificats: Meine Seele erhöbt den Herrn.

Psalm 119 isn't only exceptional in its length, it is also its content which makes it unique in the whole of the Bible. It is a lengthy ode on the Word of God and God's commandments. The tone is set in the first verses: "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart". This Psalm was considered a summary of the whole Bible, both Old and New Testament. Its 176 verses are grouped into sections of eight, and every section is marked with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet (from Aleph to Thau), which explains why this Psalm was called the 'Golden ABC'. It says much about Schütz's spiritual convictions that it is a verse from this particular Psalm which he chose as the subject for the sermon at his funeral, and that he set the whole Psalm as his 'swan song'.

Psalm 119 is set in eleven motets - every motet consists of sixteen verses (two sections of eight each), and is preceded by the two respective letters of the Hebrew alphabet. All motets are written for two four-part choirs with a basso seguente. Just as this work reflects the faith of Schütz, it is a testimony of his artistic ideals. During his whole career Schütz followed musical developments - in particular in Italy - very closely, and mostly with sympathy, but at the same time he always stuck to what he learned from his first teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli. During the 17th century the concertato style became more and more fashionable, at the cost of the polyphony which was the feature of the stile antico. But Schütz always underlined the importance of counterpoint as the basis of the art of composing. One of his main collections of music, the Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648, is an impressive statement of his aesthetic ideals. And it can hardly be a coincidence that at the end of his life he followed up on what he stated with that opus. In line with this is the motet for his funeral he asked Christoph Bernhard to compose: it had to be written in the stile antico, and when Schütz received it, he was completely satisfied, and stated that there wasn't a single note he could improve. He must have been very happy to see that the art of writing polyphony hadn't died out.

Another feature of Schütz's compositional style is the attention he pays to the text. That was the main reason he was called musicus poeticus. His main focus was always to express the text in the music. And to that end he made use of all tools a composer of his time had at his disposal. In this work he uses the split of the ensemble into two choirs to create dynamic contrasts: the two choirs join each other to single out verses which Schütz must have wanted to give special attention to. For instance, in the very first motet three lines are emphasized: "verlaß mich nimmermehr" (o forsake me not utterly), "gelobet sei der Herr" (blessed art thou, O God), and "schaue auf deine Wege" ([I] have respect unto thy ways). Repetition of the same word or phrase in both choirs is used to enhance the emotion ("ach, ach"; SWV 486) or to increase the expression ("hilf mir", SWV 487; "hasse", SWV 489). The use of specific rhythmic patterns also serves the emphasis on some passages in the text, like "deine Rechte sind mein Lied in meinem Hause" (SWV 485) - the text of the sermon at Schütz's funeral. Direct text illustration is, for instance, the extended treatment of lines with words like "ewiglich" and "immer und ewiglich" (ever [and ever]). Repetition is also used to depict specific words, in particular "Verfolger" (persecutors). The last motet of Psalm 119 is the most intimate. Here the poet expresses his longing for God's salvation. It is dominated by lines like "Let my cry come near before Thee, O Lord", "Let thine hand help me", "Let my soul live" and ends with "Seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments". It brings to a close one of Schütz's most impressive compositions.

It is a matter of good fortune that this work has come down to us, especially as only the title page and the table of contents were printed. The music itself has been preserved in part books. These could easily have been destroyed as a result of war. They were saved from the bombardment of the Dresden Royal Palace by Prussian troops in 1760 thanks to the removal of the part books to Guben in Lower Silesia. In the 1930s they were brought to Berlin, which saved them from being destroyed during World War II, as at the end of the war Guben was largely destroyed. The part books were photocopied; the part-books themselves disappeared and only turned up again in the 1970s. Unfortunately two of the part-books are missing. The Schütz scholar Wolfram Steude reconstructed the missing parts, and his edition is used for modern performances. The present recording is based on a new edition, which is part of the Stuttgart Schütz Edition, published by Carus-Verlag. It is not an entirely new reconstruction: its starting point is Steude's edition, but - as the editor Werner Breig states in his liner-notes - "offers other solutions in a number of places".

Schütz doesn't give any indication as to whether and, if so, which instruments should be used. But there is general agreement that in those of his works which are strongly rooted in the tradition of counterpoint, instruments can or should be used to support the voices. Here the instrumental ensemble is rather modest, and two groups of contrasting instruments are used: on the one hand strings (violin, three viole da gamba), on the other hand the combination of cornett and sackbuts, common in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

As no performances of the Schwanengesang in Schütz's own time or shortly thereafter are documented, it is impossible to say, how many singers should be involved. Rademann uses two groups of twelve singers each; one from each voice group also operates as a soloist (eight in total). He uses the alternation of soli and tutti to emphasize contrasts in the text, such as in Tue wohl deinem Knechte. All the motets and the concluding doxologies open with an intonation. In some performances these are sung by the tenors of the choir, but here they are allocated to a solo voice. In most cases that is a tenor, but in some motets the intonation is sung by a soprano. That seems debatable, but as I don't have access to the score, it is impossible to check what Schütz requires here. In some cases the instruments are used as substitutes for one or more voices; this seems also questionable.

This is likely the concluding volume of the complete recording of Schütz's oeuvre, under the direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann. Overall I have assessed his performances positively (a couple of volumes are still waiting to be reviewed), but sometimes I found them too restrained. This recording of the Schwanengesang has to be ranked among the best in this project. Much attention is paid to the text, which is always perfectly intelligible, thanks to an excellent diction, an immaculate blending of the voices - which results in an optimum transparency - as well as the fact that all the singers are native German speakers. They are also very flexible, which is especially important, as Schütz uses contrasting rhythms in the interest of text expression.

The Schwanengesang is Heinrich Schütz's last musical will and testament. It deserves an excellent performance, and that is exactly what we get here.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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