The great triumvirate of early baroque German composers - Schütz, Schein and Scheidt – have, in the last thirty years, grown in significance. It’s good then to welcome an increase in our knowledge and availability of the music with this fine CD.
When I first came across his music I knew Schein only as a composer of instrumental works as found in his collection entitled ‘Banchetto Musicale’ recorded by Archiv in the 1960s. Then I met him briefly as a composer for the organ. He was, after all, a church musician. He worked in Dresden and Leipzig as a ‘cantorate’ as Walter Werbeck’s excellent booklet essay describes him. Then I came across Schein as a composer of secular vocal music written in a prevailing Italian style. You might recall that Schütz had studied with Giovanni Gabrielli and brought ideas back to Germany. Anyway that was with a disc by Cantus Cölln called ‘Diletti Pastorali’ (deutsche harmonia music RD77088) with texts such as ‘O Amaryllis lovely and fair/My heart so faithful and full of love”. In addition, fairly recently, I reviewed and listened with much enjoyment to a further disc of instrumental music, mainly consisting of Schein’s dances - Courantes and Galliardes - from the ensemble Les Sacquebottiers (Ambroisie 9996). Now we encounter another aspect of Schein’s varied art.
The present disc contains extracts from two publications of sacred works, cantatas mostly based on Psalms, ‘Opella Nova’ dated 1618 and 1626 and ‘Fontana D’Israel’ (or in German ‘Israelsbrunnlein’) of 1623. These again are in the fashionable style of the time hailing from Italy although German chorale tunes are used. The former publications may use chorale texts and melodies as in ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’ but they in are the concerto style. Just one or two soloists are pitted against a solo violin or two with continuo as in the first track ‘Christ unser Herr’ for two sopranos. They also adopt the imitative style as with the soprano and violins in ‘O Jesu Christ, Gottes sohn’. In ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’ and ‘Christ Lag’ the tenor sings the chorale melody whilst the upper voices weave a complex two-part counterpoint which is loosely based on it. The point is further emphasized in the performance of ‘Komm heiliger Geist’ where, as Michael Laplénie tells us in his ‘About the recording’ essay, the tenor is placed in the balcony near the organ and away from the sopranos.
In the 1623 collection the settings are in a more madrigalian - even Canzonet – style. They are, in the main, in five voices usually with instrumental support as in ‘Unser leben’. Particularly effective, in terms of word-painting, are the two texts from that little known but wonderful ‘The Song of Songs’. In ‘Freuedich des Weibes Jugend’ the ‘dove’ is described with a lyrical, floating motif. Also notable in ‘Da Jakob Vollendet hatte’ - again from ‘Fontana D’Israel’ – are the extraordinary harmonies used in the final section for the word ‘weep’. Schein is more experimental in many works from this collection. He is not averse to chromatic writing of the sort found in the Italian Madrigals even in those of Schütz. Likewise Schein is susceptible to chromatic writing to draw out greater expressive power from the text as with ‘Erbarm dich mein’ from the ‘Opella Nova’ collection.
Schein’s texts spread across the church year. ‘O Jesu Christ’ would be suitable for Passion Week, ‘Kom Heiliger Geist’ for Pentecost and ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’ for Christmas. Other texts are more general.
The performers, especially the singers, are particularly sensitive to the words and vary the dynamics very successfully and movingly. In addition they are wonderfully supported and enhanced by the instrumentalists. The balance is ideal between all of the group. All texts are given and translated. There are photographs of the performers and, as mentioned above, an excellent essay.