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Concert reviews

Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): "Schütz in Italy"
Sette Voci/Peter Kooij
concert: Nov 11, 2015, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

This concert is available for listening here

Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Toccata II in g minora; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Partita 'Auff die Mayerin' (FbWV 606)a; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Bringt her dem Herren (SWV 283); Der Herr schauet vom Himmel (SWV 292); Di marmo siete voi (SWV 17); Dunque addio, care selve (SWV 15); Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten (SWV 282); Fuggi o mio core (SWV 8); Giunto e pur, Lidia (SWV 18); Io moro, ecco ch'io moro (SWV 13); Mi saluta costei (SWV 12); O dolcezze amarissime (SWV 2); O lieber Herre Gott (SWV 287); O süßer, o freundlicher, o gütiger Herr Jesu Christe (SWV 285); Quella damma son io (SWV 11); Ride la primavera (SWV 7); Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz (SWV 291); Sospir, che del bel petto (SWV 14); Tornate, o cari baci (SWV 16); Wann unsre Augen schlafen ein (SWV 316)

Gerlinde Sämann, Kristen Witmer, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, contralto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Jelle Draijer, bass; Ageet Zweistra, cello; Lorenzo Feder, harpsichord (soloa), organ

Heinrich Schütz is one of the key figures in German - and more widely European - music history. He experienced a major shift in musical aesthetics: the transition from the stile antico which was dominated by counterpoint, and the stile moderno whose main goal was the expression of Affekte. Not every German composer of his time embraced the new style: some continued to compose in the old polyphonic style. Others enthusiastically welcomed what came to them from Italy and started to compose sacred concertos in Italian style. The representatives of the north German organ school translated the features of the Italian style, the stylus phantasticus, in their organ works.

We find Heinrich Schütz somewhere in the middle. Polyphony continued to play a major role in his compositions, and he held his teacher Gabrieli in high esteem until the end of his life. On the other hand he was not afraid of including the newest trends in (Italian) music in his own oeuvre. In some of his compositions he mixed the two styles, but he also published collections which reflect either the stile antico or the stile moderno. The ensemble Sette Voci, directed by Peter Kooij, gave a series of concerts with extracts from two such collections. On the one hand it sang eleven madrigals from Il primo libro de madrigali which was published in 1611, on the other hand we heard seven sacred concertos from two of the three collections with Kleine Geistliche Konzerte which Schütz published in 1636 and 1639 respectively. Despite the stylistic differences the madrigals and the sacred concertos have more in common than one is probably inclined to think. That came clearly to the fore in the performances of Sette Voci.

The madrigals are the direct result of Schütz's studies with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice. The latter was a representative of the stile antico but in his later works we notice an increasing sensitivity towards the latest trends in music, especially in regard to the connection between text and music. In the composing of madrigals there was already a tendency to a more direct text expression. The pioneer in this respect was Cipriano de Rore to whom only recently Paul Van Nevel devoted a series of concerts with his Huelgas Ensemble. Composers of next generations, such as Luca Marenzio, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Carlo Gesualdo, followed in his footsteps. Schütz's madrigals fit into that tradition. The very first madrigal in the programme, O dolcezze amarissime, demonstrated Schütz's attention to the text: the first line, "O most bitter sweetness of love", is set to some pretty strong dissonants. Equally eloquent is the chromaticism in Dunque addio, care selve on the closing words "disperata e dolente" (despairing and grief-stricken). These are only some examples of text expression. Others are the long notes on "eterno" (eternal) in Ride la primavera, a madrigal which begins in a vivid tempo and rhythm in its description of the joys of spring. The text of Mi saluta costei comprises two sections of a strongly contrasting character which is translated into music in such a way that any listener will notice it, even without understanding the text. Schütz uses various ways to express the texts and explore the contrast between words and phrases, such as harmonic progressions, variation in rhythm and tempo and the juxtaposition of voice groups.

Whereas the madrigals are set for five voices a cappella, the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte are scored for one or more solo voices and basso continuo. This is an indication that they are modelled after the monodic style which had emerged in Italy in the early17th century and which was especially propagated by Giulio Caccini. Although in the pieces for various voices - for instance O lieber Herre Gott for two sopranos - elements of the stile antico as we find them in motets of the renaissance are clearly present, these concertos are dominated by the principle of music as speech, in German Klangrede. The main aim of the monodic principle was the communication of a text and its meaning to an audience. To that end the text had to be clearly audible, and the best way to achieve this was the composition for solo voice with only basso continuo. In his Kleine Geistliche Konzerte Schütz supported this by using texts in the vernacular.

The programme included some brilliant examples, such as Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten, a setting of Psalm 70 in which the contrast in the text are vividly depicted in the music. There are no dark streaks in O süßer, o freundlicher, o gütiger Herr Jesu Christe; the happiness of the protagonist with his God is eloquently exposed. Another beautiful piece is Bringt her dem Herren in which every two lines end with a vivid "Alleluja". Examples of text expression are the descending figures in the opening phrase of Der Herr schauet vom Himmel (The Lord looked down from heaven) and of Wann unsre Augen schlafen ein (When our eyes close in sleep).

This programme was performed in the Pieterskerk, a beautiful medieval church in the town centre. However, for a programme like this it was probably less suitable. The madrigals are chamber music and intended for performance in domestic surroundings. The sacred concertos are also not intended for a large church, but rather a small chapel or probably even as music to be sung during dinner. I was seated at quite a distance from the ensemble and as a result I missed some details, especially in the faster passages. Fortunately I could fill in the gaps by listening to the recording of the radio transmission. Lorenzo Feder played two harpsichord pieces and did so well, but these are even less suitable for a large space. Some organ pieces would have been a better option.

That said, Sette Voci delivered fine performances. It comprises excellent singers who are all specialists in early music; most of them are also native German speakers which is certainly ad advantage in the sacred concertos. One of the features of the ensemble is the perfect blending of the voices which is a prerequisite for a good performance of the madrigals. Here the good intonation and the use of mean-tone temperament were instrumental in the realization of the expressive harmonies. The singers also showed great sensitivity towards the text; the contrasts between words and phrases were nicely worked out, for instance through subtle dynamic shading. The madrigals are scored for voices a capella, but here the singers were supported by cello and harpsichord or organ. There is no fundamental objection against that - although the use of a cello seems a bit anachronistic - but I probably would have preferred a purely vocal performance.

The qualities of the individual singers were nicely exposed in the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte. Again I admired their treatment of the texts. Gerlinde Sämann gave a fine performance of Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten and delivered an excellent interpretation of O lieber Herre Gott, together with Kristen Witmer. Der Herr schauet vom Himmel is a duet for alto and bass; there was a good balance between Margot Oitzinger and Jelle Draijer, who both have exactly the right voices for this repertoire. It regretted that the latter didn't get an opportunity to sing a solo piece, for instance Ich liege und schlafe whose text was included in the programme but not performed. Jan Kobow did well in O süßer, o freundlicher. Although the addition of ornamentation should not be exaggerated - Schütz was no Italian and didn't follow Italian habits slavishly - I would have liked a little more here and there. But the main thing is that the text is always in the centre, and that was certainly the case here.

In this concert the many qualities of Heinrich Schütz's oeuvre were impressively demonstrated. His music is not as well known as it deserves to be, certainly not outside Germany. By giving attention to Schütz Peter Kooij follows in his father's footsteps who in his capacity as cantor of Utrecht cathedral for many years was a great advocate of Schütz's oeuvre. Sette Voci made crystal clear that Schütz was rightly called musicus poeticus as his ability to set a text to music was second to none.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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