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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Musicalische Exequien

Vox Luminis
Dir: Lionel Meunier
Bernard Foccroulle, organa

rec: Oct 2010, Beaufays, Église Saint-Jean l'évangeliste; 1999, Leffe, Abbaye Notre Damea
Ricercar - RIC 311 (© 2011) (55'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist
Score (Musicalische Exequien)

Martin LUTHER (1483-1546): Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin; Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Wir glauben all an einen Gotta; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Das ist je gewißlich wahr (SWV 277); Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren (SWV 432); Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren (SWV 433); Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben (SWV 464); Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281)

Sara Jäggi, Zsuzsi Tóth, soprano I; Helen Cassano, Kerlijne Van Nevel, soprano II; Barnabás Hegyi, Jan Kullmann, alto; Philippe Froeliger, Satoshi Mizukoshi, tenor I; Robert Buckland, Olivier Berten, tenor II; Bertrand Delvaux, Lionel Meunier, bass; Ricardo Rodríguez Miranda, viola da gamba; Masato Suzuki, organ

Death plays an important role in the music of the renaissance and baroque eras. It was a daily experience: wars and disasters made many victims, and so did diseases which have now practically disappeared, like the plague. Moreover, relatively few children survived their first year. In a time in which almost everyone believed in God it was only logical that people turned to their faith and the Church in times of sorrow. That resulted in a large number of compositions which are related to suffering and death.

Most of Johann Sebastian Bach's motets were composed for funerals. In the oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz one can also find a number of pieces which were written at the occasion of the death of a particular person or were suited for funerals. The most famous of them is the main work on this disc, the Musicalische Exequien. It was performed in February 1636 during the funeral of Herr Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß, who had died on 3 December of the previous year. He himself had painstakingly outlined every detail of his funeral. He should be buried in a copper coffin which should be adorned with 22 texts he himself had chosen. They were partly taken from the Bible and partly extracts from various hymns. It is often written that Herr von Reuß himself had asked Schütz to set them to music, but the Schütz scholar Werner Breig believes that it is more likely that Schütz received the commission from his widow and sons.

The Musicalische Exequien are divided into three sections. Part 1 contains the 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 quotations from the Bible are set as little sacred concertos, the hymns as 6-part motets. Schütz doesn't use the chorale melodies which were deployed by so many other German composers.
Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs.
Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis), Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace"). Here Schütz has added that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

There is no reconstruction of the whole ceremony here. That would probably be impossible as I doubt whether it is exactly known what it looked like. Some elements are represented. The Exequien are preceded by Martin Luther's funeral hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin which is sung unisono by the whole ensemble. This is preceded by an organ arrangement of the hymn Wir glauben all an einen Gott, Luther's version of the Credo which was sung in every service in Lutheran Germany.

The disc begins with four funeral motets Schütz composed for various people he knew personally. In 1630 Johann Hermann Schein died, who was a personal friend of his, and Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Schütz composed the motet Das ist je gewißlich wahr (SWV 277), with a moving tribute on the title page to this "man of most excellent genius and virtue". Another motet, Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben (SWV 464), was written for the funeral of Anton Colander, court organist in Dresden and a pupil of Schütz.

A favourite text for funerals was the Canticum Simeonis, known under the Latin title of Nunc dimittis, in Germany mostly with the text Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren. It is the closing section of the Musicalische Exequien, but Schütz also set this text twice in 1656 for the funeral of Georg I, the Elector of Saxony, who had been Schütz' employer for more than 40 years. The first setting was to be sung before, the second after the sermon. Both are for six voices and basso continuo.

I am very impressed by these performances of Vox Luminis. There is certainly no lack of recordings of the Musicalische Exequien, but this one lands at the top of my list, alongside the performance of the Collegium Vocale under Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia mundi). The singing, both solo and ensemble, is of great beauty. More importantly, the delivery is outstanding, which is essential in a performance of any work by Schütz who paid so much attention to the text that he was nicknamed Musicus poeticus. Moreover, this recording has the solemn atmosphere this work asks for. The other motets are given equally impressive interpretations.

This is definitely one of the best discs of 2011.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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