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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): "Geistliche Chor-Music 1648"

Ensemble Polyharmonique
Dir: Alexander Schneider

rec: June 30 - July 3, 2019, Lehrbach (D), Hotel Dorfmühle (Kornspeicher)
Raumklang - RK3903 (© 2020) (57'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt a 5 (SWV 380) [3]; Das ist je gewißlich wahr a 6 (SWV 388) [3]; Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes a 6 (SWV 386) [3]; Die mit Tränen säen a 5 (SWV 378) [3]; Die Seele Christi heilige mich a 3 (SWV 325) [2]; Eins bitte ich vom Herren a 2 (SWV 294) [1]; Erhöre mich, wenn ich rufe a 2 (SWV 289) [1]; Herr, auf dich traue ich a 5 (SWV 377) [3]; Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock a 6 (SWV 389) [3]; Ich bin eine rufende Stimme a 6 (SWV 383) [3]; O lieber Herre Gott a 6 (SWV 381) [3]; Selig sind die Toten a 6 (SWV 391) [3]; So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ a 5 (SWV 379) [3]; Unser keiner lebet ihm selber a 5 (SWV 374) [3]; Unser Wandel ist im Himmel a 6 (SWV 390) [3]

Sources: [1] Erster Theil kleiner geistlichen Concerten, 1636; [2] Anderer Theil kleiner geistlichen Concerten, 1639; [3] Musicalia ad chorum sacrum, das ist: Geistliche Chor-Music ... erster Theil, 1648

Magdalena Harer, Joowon Chung, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Johannes Gaubitz, Sören Richter, tenor; Matthias Lutze, bass; Juliane Laake, violone; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

The collection Geistliche Chor-Music by Heinrich Schütz today belongs among the most performed choral music. Not only professional choirs, but also amateur ensembles like to perform motets from this collection. Historically it is a most remarkable work as it is out of step with the time in which the Italian concertato style, whose features were a theatrical treatment of the text and the use of the basso continuo, was dominant. Schütz himself made use of that style as well, for instance in his Symphoniae Sacrae, the second part of which he had only published one year earlier.

Schütz had a specific reason to compose his Geistliche Chor-Music in the old-fashioned motet-style characterised by its use of counterpoint. In his preface he doesn't criticise the increased popularity of the concertato style, but he emphasises that for every composer it is essential to master the classical polyphonic style of composing before turning to the concertato style. He wanted "to remind Germany's budding composers that, before proceding to the concertante style, they should bite on this hard nut [the motet style] (in which the true heart and foundation of good counterpoint will be found) and pass their first test in this way". This doesn't mean Schütz returns to the style of the renaissance: he makes use of contemporary means of expressing the text in the music, without ever exaggerating, and avoiding anything too theatrical.

The collection consists of 29 motets, ordered according to the number of parts, going from five to seven. The present disc offers a selection of twelve motets for five and six voices. Most motets are based on texts from the Bible, especially the New Testament. The only exception among the motets performed here is So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ, whose text is taken from the Gesangbüchlein Geistlicher Psalmen (Bonn, 1575). The programme has been put together in such a way that it opens with a reference to the Creation of the world (Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes; Psalm 19 vs 2-7) and closes with a text from the last Book of the Bible, Revelations: Selig sind die Toten - "Blest are the departed, which are the Lord's in dying from henceforth".

Schütz was generally called musicus poeticus, referring to his attention to the text. According to the musicologist Siegfried Schmalzriedt Schütz mostly uses the so-called stylus luxurians communis, which "occupies a moderate, intermediate position between those styles which, prior to 1600, had been known as the 'motet-style' and the 'madrigal-style'. In practical terms this means that in the majority of the motets in the Geistliche Chor-Music Schütz strives to achieve an expressive setting of the text while still maintaining the autonomy of the music". In several motets Schütz uses musical means to emphasize the contrast between passages, for instance between "leben" (live) and "sterben" (die) (Unser keiner lebet ihm selber), "die mit Tränen säen - werden mit Freuden ernten" (who in sorrow plant seed - shall gather in rejoicing) (Die mit Tränen säen) or "sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit - und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach" (they rest now from all their labours - and all their works do follow after them) (Selig sind die Toten). In Die mit Tränen säen Schütz also employs chromaticism to illustrate the words "They go out now with sorrow".

The fact that this collection was printed in 1648 does not indicate that all the pieces were of recent origin. Some are considerably older. That goes, for instance, for Das ist je gewißlich wahr, which has its roots in the funeral music which Schütz composed in 1630 for his colleague and friend Johann Hermann Schein, who was Thomaskantor in Leipzig. To that choir, by the way, the collection was dedicated. Not long after that Schütz composed Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes.

How should these motets be performed? The word Chor-Music (choral music) should not be interpreted according to modern standards. A 'choir' in the baroque era simply referred to a group of voices and/or instruments, and tells us nothing about the number of performers. Also the fact that this collection was dedicated to the choir of St Thomas's in Leipzig does not indicate how many singers should be involved. Scholars emphasize that several options are viable, going from a strictly one-voice-per-part to a mixture of voices and instruments. The iconic recording by the Knabenchor Hannover and an instrumental ensemble under the direction of Heinz Hennig (deutsche harmonia mundi, 1984) is an example of the latter. Hans-Christoph Rademann followed the same concept (Carus, 2007; later reissued as part of the Carus Schütz Edition). Weser-Renaissance, directed by Manfred Cordes (CPO, 1998), performs these motets with one voice per part and additional instruments. The present disc follows this concept, but omits instruments other than a basso continuo. The latter is also optional: an a capella performance is entirely legitimate.

As if to show that Schütz had full command of the concertato style, the programme is extended with three pieces from the two collections of Kleine Geistliche Conzerte, which were printed in 1636 and 1639 respectively. The scorings for a few solo voices and basso continuo were partly enforced by the circumstances of the Thirty Years War, which made it largely impossible to perform large-scale works. Here the influence of the Italian monodic style clearly manifests itself.

They also offer the opportunity to the singers to show their skills in a more declamatory way of singing than is required in the motets. All six singers of this ensemble have wonderful voices, and they give a perfect account of these concertos. In the motets, their voices blend perfectly, and they pay much attention to the text. Passages with marked text expression come off to full extent. There is just one issue, and that is the tempi. In comparison with other recordings that I know, most motets are sung at a slower tempo, sometimes even considerably slower. That is not always a problem, and also a matter of taste, but now and then I felt that the expression suffered as a result of a slowish tempo. Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes is an example where a faster tempo would have resulted in a more satisfying interpretation.

In general, this is a fine recording, which - due to its line-up - can serve as a meaningful alternative to existing interpretations. I don't know if there are plans for a sequel, consisting of the remaining motets of the Geistliche Chor-Music, but I certainly hope so. After all, we can't get enough Schütz, can we?

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Polyharmonique

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