musica Dei donum
Heinrich Schütz (1585 - 1672): "German Requiem"
Veronika Winter, Bettina Pahn, soprano; Henning Voss, alto; Jan Kobow, Henning Kaiser, tenor; Ralf Grobe, Ulrich Maier, bass
Alsfelder Vokalensemble; Himlische Cantorey; Baroque Orchestra I Febiarmonici; Beata Röllecke, organ
Dir: Wolfgang Helbich
rec: Oct 10 - 12, 2001, Bremen, St Petridom
Naxos - 8.555705 (52'51")
Die mit Tränen säen (SWV 378)1;
Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279 - 281);
Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (SWV 478);
So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ (SWV 379)1
(Sources:  Geistliche Chormusik, 1648)
The Musicalische Exequien belong to the most famous and most solemn of Schütz's oeuvre. The work was commissioned by Heinrich Posthumus 'the younger' of Reuss-Gera, an educated and cultivated ruler. When he was over sixty he started to make preparations for his death. These preparations included an exact plan specifying what was to happen at the funeral ceremony and in which sequence - including the music to be performed, for which he commissioned Heinrich Schütz.
Schütz's music is not a sort of German protestant version of the Roman Catholic Requiem. In this respect the title of the disc, "German Requiem", is misleading. It was part of a funeral procedure which was rooted in pre-Reformation tradition of exequies (Lat. exequiae = accompanying a dead person out). They contain three parts: the transfer of the body to the church, the celebration of the Requiem Mass and the procession to the grave.
Being part of a funeral procedure this work could perhaps best be compared with Purcell's Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary.
The three parts are composed in different ways. Part 1 consists of 21 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 first section - "Nacket bin ich von Mutterleibe kommen" - serves as Kyrie, the second - "Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt" - as Gloria. Here we find a strong connection to the Lutheran Missa brevis (consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only). The quotations from the Bible are set as small sacred concertos (like the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, whose publication Schütz was preparing during the time of his composition of the Musicalische Exequien), the hymns as 6-part motets, to be sung by the cappella. (Schütz doesn't use the chorale melodies as they are still known today.) Part 2 is a bichoral sermon motet, part 3 is a chorus for double choir. This section is remarkable in that the first choir (5 voices) should sing the Canticum Simeonis at the organ, whereas the second 'choir', only consisting of three voices (2 sopranos and bass) should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" in the crypt, in which Heinrich Posthumus was going to be buried. Unfortunately this doesn't come through in this recording.
In recordings of this work one has to look for other music to fill the remaining space on the disc. Most contain other motets and sacred concertos regarding death. In this case the main other item is Schütz's setting of the seven words of Jesus at the cross. This is perhaps not the most satisfying choice, as this work is not about death in the way the Musicalische Exequien are. One could argue, though, that the most crucial text part of the Musicalische Exequien is that which directly refers to the death and resurrection of Christ as the very foundation of Christian faith: "Christus ist mein Leben" and "Siehe, das ist Gottes Lamm" (For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Behold the lamb of God who beareth the sins of the world).
It is not known when and for which occasion the Seven Words were composed. There are some interesting aspects in this work. The music is relatively simple, and therefore this work was perhaps composed for small chapels which didn't have professional singers. The work opens and closes with stanzas from the passion hymn Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund (Schütz doesn't use the chorale melody, though), which is also about Jesus's words at the cross. Schütz presents these words in prose, and changes the order of the words as they are referred to in the hymn and brings them in line with the actual order as reported in the gospels. The words of Jesus at the cross are supported by two violins, a practice which was also used by Schütz's pupil Johann Theile and later Johann Sebastian Bach in their respective settings of the Passion according to St Matthew. The words of the Evangelist are given to a solo voice (soprano, alto or tenor), or an ensemble of four voices. This reminds of the practice in Schütz’s Auferstehungshistorie. The piece isn't dramatic, but has a rather meditative character, as the closing stanza indicates: "Who holds in reverence God's torment and thinks often of the seven words, God will keep him".
The remaining two pieces are from the Geistliche Chormusik, a collection of motets which was published in 1648. In this Schütz underlines the importance of the traditional polyphony, which he also used in the motet-style parts of the Musicalische Exequien.
The recording is generally enjoyable. I very much admire the performances of the soloists. Their diction and articulation are immaculate, and their declamatory style of singing does full justice to the rhetorical character of these compositions by Schütz, who was always keen to put the text in the centre. The voices are all very clear and blend well.
The choir as such is good, but nevertheless it is the disappointing part of this recording, especially since its sound is rather dense and isn’t as transparent as it should be. The choir is a little too large, and there is too much of a gap between solo voices and choir. The ideal for Schütz's music is a vocal ensemble whose members also sing the solo parts. In that respect Philippe Herreweghe's recording of the Musicalische Exequien (Harmonia mundi) is superior to this one.
The same problem occurs in the Seven Words. The two motets are far more satisfying.
On the whole, though, this is a fine recording which can be recommended. And the music never ceases to impress.
Johan van Veen (© 2004)