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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Die sieben Worte & St John Passion

Ars Nova Copenhagen
Dir: Paul Hillier

rec: June 5 - 7, 2009, Copenhagen, Sankt Pauls Kirkeb; August 27 - 29, 2009, Copenhagen, Garnisons Kirkea
Dacapo - 8.226093 (© 2009) (58'11")

Die sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi (SWV 478)a; Historia des Leidens und Sterbens … Jesu Christi nach dem Evangelisten St. Johannem (Johannes-Passion) (SWV 481)b

Hilde Ramnefjell Dolvab, Louise Skovbaech Korsholmb (Die Magd), Else Torp, soprano; Ellen Marie Brink Christensenb, Rie Kochb, Rikke Lenderb, Linnéa Lomholt, contralto; Poul Emborgb, Josef Hamberb (Pilatus), Tomas Medicib (Petrus), Johan Linderotha, Adam Riis (Evangelistb, Jesusa), tenor; Thomas Kiörbyeb, Asger Lynge Petersenb, Henrik Lund Petersenb, Jacob Bloch Jespersen (Jesusb), bass; Juliane Laake, Sarah Perl, viola da gambaa; Eric Lindblom, Erik Björqvist, Ian Price, sackbuta; Allan Rasmussen, organa

This is the second recording in what seems to be a Schütz project by the choir Ars Nova Copenhagen, directed by Paul Hillier. In 2009 the first disc was released which contained the St Luke Passion. This time it is the St John Passion, which is combined with the setting of The seven Words of Jesus. They are stylistically very different, although they were both written at the later stage of Schütz' life. Whereas The seven Words is a typically baroque piece, with instruments and basso continuo, the Passion looks back to the renaissance, as it is set for voices without instruments and without support of a basso continuo part.

Die sieben Worte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi begin and end with a tutti section, called Introitus and Conclusio respectively. They use the first and the last stanza from the hymn 'Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund', but Schütz - as so often - didn't use the traditional hymn melody, but rather set them as 5-part motets. There are also two instrumental Symphonias which follow the Introitus and precede the Conclusio. They frame the actual narration from the Bible, in which texts from the four gospels are mixed. Schütz juxtaposes the narrative - given to one voice in various ranges or to four voices - and the direct speech, in which Jesus' words at the cross are quoted. These are sung by a tenor. The use of instruments and musical and textual repetition are the main tools Schütz uses to express the content of this work.

The St John Passion is a completely different kind of composition. It dates from 1666 and was performed on Good Friday. It begins with an Eingang: "The Passion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as we find it written in the Holy Scripture in the Gospel of Saint John". The Passion ends with the first stanza of the hymn 'O hilf Christe, Gottes Sohn', but Schütz again doesn't make use of the hymn melody.

The role of the Evangelist is given to a tenor, the role of Jesus to a bass. The turbae are sung by four voices, and the roles of the various characters by a soprano (the damsel), two tenors (Petre, Pilate) and a bass (the servant of the High Priest). Like in his liner notes to the recording of the St Luke Passion the American musicologist Daniel R. Melamed emphasizes that the Passions are different from anything Schütz has otherwise written. He was known for composing music which was strongly influenced by the expressive Italian concertato style. "But the musical types Schütz chose for his passion settings do not allow for this kind of expression either in the solo material or the choruses. The solo singing is modeled on the formulaic recitation of scriptural texts, favoring a melodic line that remains on the same pitch for many words in a row. (...) In the evangelist's narration, Schütz's principal tools are the choice of reciting pitch and the arrival on particular notes as resting places (cadence points)."

One wonders if performers read the programme notes of their own recordings. In the case of the recording of the St Luke Passion I noticed the incongruency between the views of Melamed and Paul Hillier's interpretation. And that is the case here as well. The tenor who sings the part of the Evangelist stresses elements in the text by dynamic means or by slowing down. An extreme case of the latter is the passage in which Jesus is speaking to his mother and his disciple John, urging the latter to take care of his mother. But the score doesn't give any indication that this passage has to be sung that slow. Of the other parts it is in particular that of Pilate which is sung with expression - but that is out of order here.

It is a big shame that this recording of a work which is badly represented in the catalogue, misrepresents its character completely. That is especially regrettable as Adam Riis who sings the role of the Evangelist, has a nice and clear voice, an excellent diction and a good German pronunciation. Josef Hamber isn't ideally suited for the role of Pilate as his high notes sound rather uncomfortable. Jakob Bloch Jespersen is disappointing in the part of Jesus, in particular because of his continuous slight vibrato.

This is a disc which moves between 'too much' and 'too little'. The attempts to sing expressively in the St John Passion are inappropriate, but in the Sieben Worte, where expression is required, there is too little of it. Dynamically the singing is too flat. Adam Riis is excellent again in his performance of the words of Jesus, but could have been more declamatory. The tutti sections are disappointing because the voices don't blend that well, especially because of the vibrato of the soprano. And in the Introitus the words "mit bitterm Schmerzen" (with bitter and anguish cruel) are sung with too little expression.

In short, this second disc of an apparent Schütz project is a failure, just like the first.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Ars Nova Copenhagen
Paul Hillier

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