Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672)
Heinrich Schütz Edition
Cappella Augustana/Matteo Messori
Liner-notes, texts and translations available online.
Full list of contents and performers at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94361 [19 CDs: c16:40:00]
When Brilliant Classics announced its Schütz Edition about ten years ago one got the impression that the complete works of Heinrich Schütz would be recorded. The first three volumes (vol. 1; vol. 2) appeared within a couple of years, and then the Edition seemed to have been foundered. Apparently that was not the case as this set includes the fourth volume which was recorded in 2008 (review). That recording has never crossed my path, though, and I wonder if it was ever released separately. The fact that all four volumes are now reissued as the Heinrich Schütz Edition suggests that this is all we will get. Some of Schütz’s main works are included, but some important parts of his oeuvre are omitted, such as the Psalmen Davids, the Symphoniae Sacrae III and the so-called Schwanengesang. His many independent works and compositions for special occasions are also omitted as is one of his most underrated and largely neglected collections, the Beckerscher Psalter. Do we need to regret that there isn't more? Probably not, considering the weaknesses in these recordings.
The first volume of this project included the two collections of Symphoniae Sacrae which were printed in 1629 in Venice and in 1647 in Dresden respectively (discs 1-5). They were all written in the modern concertante style which was developed in Italy. They’re scored for one to three solo voices and basso continuo, with additional melody instruments, mostly two violins. In some concertos Schütz requires an ensemble of sackbuts. The Cappella Augustana largely comprises Polish singers. That is problematic in the Symphoniae Sacrae II: these concertos are written on German texts, and most singers have great problems with the pronunciation. That is not an issue in the Symphoniae Sacrae I which set Latin. Here it is the diction which is under par, and which is partly responsible for mostly rather poor verbal expression. Some parts in Schütz’s music create problems because of their pitch: they are too low for an alto and too high for a average tenor. In some concertos (for instance SWV 259) Krzystof Szmyt has considerable problems in hitting the top notes of his part properly. In SWV 348 the alto Piotr Lykowski switches to his chest register to sing the low notes, but that doesn’t help all that much. Here a tenor with a good high register is needed, like the French hautecontre. Harry van der Kamp sings all the pieces for bass solo in both collections of the Symphoniae Sacrae, and he is head and shoulders above anyone else in the ensemble. Since this repertoire is bread and butter for him, he is able to impart real meaning to what he sings, through articulation, dynamic shading and the coloration. These are the things which one sorely misses in the performances of his colleagues.
Some aspects of performance practice applied are questionable. In general tempi are too slow. As a result in many cases the rhythmic pulse is underexposed. The Symphoniae Sacrae I were printed in Venice, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were frequently performed in Italy. It is much more likely that they were largely used in chapels and churches in Germany. Therefore adopting Italian pronunciation of Latin is suspect. The same is true of the choice of an Italian organ in the basso continuo. A German type instrument would have been more appropriate. Matteo Messori uses a large organ, and it is certainly true that as a rule church music was not accompanied on small organs such as are mostly used today. That said, it is by no means certain that the sacred concertos were always performed in church. It is also possible that they were used as 'table music', to be performed during dinner, or in private rooms at court. That makes the use of a small organ or even a harpsichord more plausible. The way Messori uses the organ is sometimes debatable. That is the case, for instance, in Lobet den Herrn in seinem Heiligtum (SWV 350). It is a setting of Psalm 150 in which various instruments are mentioned, like the trumpet, the harp and the timbrel. Messori illustrates these with various stops of the organ, for instance the regal. Schütz depicts these instruments through musical figures in the vocal part and the two instrumental parts. Adding something in the organ is not only superfluous, it detracts from the illustrative role of the vocal and instrumental parts.
On disc 5 we also find the Weihnachtshistorie. The performance is certainly not devoid of drama. It is damaged, though, by the poor German pronunciation and insufficiently declamatory performance of the Evangelist by Krzystof Szmyt. Moreover, the blending of the voices in some Intermedia is less than ideal. The Intermedium I - the annunciation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds - loses its effect because the tempo is just too slow.
Volume two can be found on discs 6 to 10 of this set. These are devoted to three large and important collections of strongly differing character. Discs 6 and 7 contain the Cantiones Sacrae, printed in 1625 and scored for four voices with basso continuo. They are rooted in the stile antico, but there is a quite close connection between text and music. In his book on Schütz the German scholar Otto Brodde typifies them as sacred madrigals and compares them with the Fontana d'Israel, the collection of sacred madrigals by Schütz’s friend Johann Hermann Schein. The choice of texts - a mixture of biblical verses and pre-Reformation meditative poems - points in the direction of performances in the homes of aristocrats rather than the liturgy. That justifies the performance with one voice per part. The four singers in the Cantiones Sacrae are all different from those in the previous recordings; as a result these performances are much better. The voices blend well, although I would have liked a less direct recording which would have resulted in a stronger ensemble effect. The expression of the texts comes off quite well. A specific matter of interest is the basso continuo part. It seems that Schütz added it at the request of his publisher. In some performances and recordings it is omitted and it’s rarely missed. The basso continuo isn't much more than a basso seguente anyway. The Italian pronunciation of Latin is definitely not justified here. Several motets are connected, as indications like prima pars and secunda pars show. In this recording there is too much silence between these parts.
The first collection of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte (discs 8 and 9) was printed in 1636 in Leipzig. The component parts are scored for one to four voices and bc, and set German texts. The singers are a mixture of 'old' and 'new' as it were, as some performers from the first recordings put in an unwelcome return appearance. The quality of the interpretations depends on the singers in the respective concertos. Most of them have great problems with the German language. This is especially damaging as in Schütz’s music the text is close to everything. He wasn't nicknamed musicus poeticus without reason. The singers tend to do too little in regard to dynamics and ornamentation while the basso continuo section often does too much. Schütz’s music certainly has theatrical traits and is influenced by the Italian music of his time. However Schütz is no Monteverdi, and here the accompaniment is often too dramatic and distracts from the vocal part.
The madrigals (disc 10) are Schütz’s first published collection. It was the direct result of his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli. They are scored for five voices; the last - on a text by Schütz himself - is for eight voices in two 'choirs'. They are performed with apposite text expression and without exaggeration. These performances do however have two serious defects. The first is that a couple of singers use vibrato and this damages the ensemble. The second is the use of the harpsichord as an accompaniment. The score does not suggest the use of an instrument. That’s not a problem in itself but the harpsichord is by no means the best choice especially when it is as obtrusive as it is here.
Discs 11 to 14, originally the third volume of this project, are devoted to music for Passiontide and Easter. We meet here two sides of Schütz: on the one hand two pieces in the modern concertante style - the Sieben Worte Jesu Christi and the Auferstehungshistorie. On the other hand there are the three Passions which bring us back to the stile antico. The Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi dates from 1623. For the part of the Evangelist Schütz keeps the traditional recitation tone, called Easter tone. He modifies it according to the fashion of the time by introducing Affekt and madrigalisms. This way the Historia loses some of its objectivity in favour of a stronger expression of the dramatic nature of the events and the emotions of the characters figuring in the story. The part of the Evangelist is assigned to the German tenor Gerd Türk which is a guarantee of perfect pronunciation. Despite this the performance as a whole fails to convince. The tempo of the opening chorus seems a little too slow. This is confirmed in the recitation of the Evangelist, which is not as naturally flowing as it should be. Syllables of lesser importance get too much emphasis. This wouldn’t have happened if a more natural speech-like tempo had been adopted. He is accompanied by viole da gamba. Their playing is so dramatic, with such strong dynamic differences, that Türk is almost overpowered from time to time. It seems to me that this style of playing is much more suitable to dramatic works by Italian composers than to the sacred oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz. The same is the case with the Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (disc 14), although here it is a little less extreme and therefore less damaging. The various vocal parts are mostly well sung.
The three Passions (discs 12 to 14) date from the latest stages of Schütz’s life. There is evidence of performances in 1666, but it is thought that the St Luke Passion was composed first, possibly as early as 1653. The American scholar Daniel Melamed, in his liner-notes for Paul Hillier's recording of Schütz’s St Luke Passion (reviewed here), emphasizes the detached character of the Passions. The soliloquents are not supposed to sing with such strong expressive force. It was not Schütz’s aim to move the audience, only to recount the story. "The Evangelist's words (...) are intoned in a kind of chant whose melodic contours are modest and whose largely unspecified rhythms are presumably meant to follow stylized speech. (...) In comparison to Bach's music the effect is stark and much less obviously expressive". The performances in this set are different. In particular in the St Matthew Passion Türk emphasizes some words and phrases in the interests of expression. Whether that was his decision or Messori’s we do not know. The liner-notes shed no light on the subject. The other two Passions are a little more modest in this respect but all three would have been more telling with a naturally speech-like rhythm from the Evangelist. This would have resulted in a somewhat faster tempo. In the interests of good pronunciation it was a wise decision, though, to assign the part of the Evangelist to Gerd Türk and that of Jesus to Bas Ramselaar. I am still awaiting really satisfying performance of the Passions; these recordings certainly do not fit that bill.
The second collection of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte is allocated to discs 15 to 17. It differs from the first collection in that it also includes concertos on a Latin text. All are scored for solo voice(s) and bc. One piece is completely different: Sei gegrüßet, Maria is a dialogue between Mary and the angel, which is for two solo voices (soprano and alto respectively) and closes with a five-part chorus. Also participating are a cornett and four sackbuts. The German pronunciation is less of a problem here, because the two altos, the two tenors and one of the basses are native German speakers. That in itself doesn't guarantee good performances. Some concertos are done rather well, but on the whole these performances suffer from a lack of expression. There is too little dynamic shading, and the key elements in the text are left without colour. Various texts contain dramatic elements, and Matteo Messori tries to make up for the lack of expressive edge from the singers by doing too much in the basso continuo. The use of both an organ and a spinettino in various concertos feels exaggerated. The collection ends with the two longest pieces, Quemadmodum desiderat cervus and Aufer immensam, Deus, aufer iram. Unfortunately this pair palls because the singers remain impassive and detached.
On disc 17 we also find the Musicalische Exequien, one of Schütz’s most impressive compositions. Only recently I reviewed an outstanding interpretation by Vox Luminis, where you can find more information about this piece. The performance by the Cappella Augustana is certainly not bad; in fact, it is one of the better parts of this set. The problem once again is that the singers make little of the text. There is a measure of verbal declamation but dynamically and rhythmically the performance lacks profile and contrast. These features also undermine the Geistliche Chor-Music which takes up the last two discs. With this collection which was printed in 1648, Schütz pays tribute once again to his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli. In his preface he emphasizes the importance of counterpoint. These motets can be performed with voices and basso continuo - that is how it is performed here - but also with instruments playing colla voce. This version is interesting in that it is the only one available - as far as I know - in which all the motets are sung with one voice per part. That in itself inclined me to endorse this performance, but unfortunately the overall standard achieved is just not good enough. One of the prerequisites with one voice per part is that the singers are outstanding soloists and can also sing as an ensemble and make their voices blend. That is not the case here. The singers are good at best or mediocre at worst, but none of them is outstanding. The sopranos make little impression and their voices are pretty bland. They seem not able to express the text. The two tenors are better as is evident from Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit. A major problem is the slow tempo in most of these motets. In many cases it seriously undermines the rhythmic pulse and detracts from what should be their lively joyful character. Rhythmic contrasts in Die mit Tränen säen are merely hinted at rather than vividly realised.
Let me sum up. The initiative to record a major part of Schütz’s oeuvre for a budget label is admirable. The liner-notes show that Messori has invested much time and energy in this project. The performances are sympathetic but unfortunately mostly not of a standard that brings them up to the competition. The overall quality of the singers is lacking, and the many changes in the line-up - sometimes for the better - lead to problems with ensemble. You can't just put together a number of singers and change them at will from one piece to the next. The best performances come from ensembles whose members have worked together on a regular basis for a long time. Moreover, in Schütz’s music the text always lies at the heart and that makes unacceptable performances by those who have problems with the pronunciation of German. The earliest recordings of pieces in German are pretty painful. The generally slow tempi, the lack of dynamic accenting and the underexposure of the rhythmic pulse further undermine these performances.
Some music-lovers unfamiliar with Schütz’s music will probably be tempted to purchase this set. I am afraid that it will not convince them that it is worth exploring. Schütz is one of my favourite composers, but I was regularly rather bored while listening to this set. If you want to become acquainted you are probably better off spending a little more money on first-rate recordings. So let me just give some alternatives:-
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and Cantiones Sacrae: Weser-Renaissance/Manfred Cordes (CPO)
Symphoniae Sacrae I: Concerto Palatino (Accent); La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (deutsche harmonia mundi)
Symphoniae Sacrae II: La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (Sony); the Purcell Quartet (Chandos)
Weihnachtshistorie: Gabrieli Consort and Players/McCreesh (Archiv; especially recommendable because of the liturgical context); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken (deutsche harmonia mundi). I also would like to mention the recording of the Weihnachtshistorie and the Auferstehungshistorie on one disc with the Kammerchor Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius (Sony). The latter work is also available with Concerto Vocale (René Jacobs; Harmonia mundi) and Weser-Renaissance (CPO).
Geistliche Chormusik: Knabenchor Hannover/Heinz Hennig (deutsche harmonia mundi); Dresdner Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Rademann (Carus); Weser-Renaissance (CPO).
Musicalische Exequien: Vox Luminis (Ricercar); Collegium vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia mundi)
Il primo libro de madrigali: Cantus Cölln (Harmonia mundi)
The Passions are not available yet in satisfying recordings.
Johan van Veen
If you want to get acquainted with Schütz’s music you better spend a little more money on first-rate recordings.
Full list of contents and performers
CD 1-2 [51:52 + 48:35]
Symphoniae Sacrae I, 1629 (SWV 257-276)
CD 3-5 [56:21 + 49:19 + 66:10]
Symphoniae Sacrae II, 1647 (SWV 341-367)
Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) (SWV 435)
Anna Mikolajczyk, Marzena Lubaszka (soprano), Piotr Lykowski (alto), Krzystof Szmyt, Robert Pozarski (tenor), Harry van der Kamp, Bogdan Makal, Walter Testolin, Gian Paolo Dal Dosso (bass), Alberto Stevanin, Gianni Meraldi (violin, violetta), Jean-Pierre Canihac, Marie Garnier-Marzullo (cornett), Jonathan Pia (trumpet), Luigi Mario Lupo, Rossella Pozzer (fiffare, recorders), Mauro Morini, Ermes Giussani, Roberta Pregliasco (sackbut), David Yacus (sackbut, dulcian), Elena Bianchi, Vincenzo Onida (dulcian), Florian Weininger (violone, double bass), Dolores Costoyas (theorbo), Matteo Messori (organ)
rec. July 2003, Chiesa arcipretale di S. Giacomo, Polcenigo (Pordenone), Italy
CD 6-7 [55:05 + 54:11]
Cantiones Sacrae, 1625 (SWV 53-93)
CD 8-9 [40:50 + 33:14]
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte I, 1636 (SWV 282-305)
CD 10 [55:42]
Il primo libro de madrigali, 1611 (SWV 1-19)
Anna Mikolajczyk, Kira Boreczko-Dal, Marzena Lubaszka (soprano), Francesca Russo Ermolli (mezzo-soprano), Michel Van Goethem, Maciej Gocman (alto), Aleksander Kunach, Paolo Borgonovo, Luca Dellacasa (tenor), Matteo Bellotto, Walter Testolin, Bogdan Makal, Garrick Comeaux (bass), Nicola Dal Maso (violone), Alessandro Orsaria (organ), Matteo Messori (spinettino, organ)
rec. January 2004, Quadreria del Seminario, Bedonia (Parma), Italy; March 2004, Chiesa arcipretale di S. Giacomo, Polcenigo (Pordenone), Italy; May 2004, Chiesa di S. Martino, Montarsiccio near Bedonia (Parma), Italy
CD 11 [47:50]
Auferstehungshistorie (SWV 50)
CD 12 [60:44]
St Matthew Passion (SWV 479)
Dialogo per la Pascua (SWV 443)
CD 13 [52:30]
St Luke Passion (SWV 480)
Es gingen zweene Menschen hinauf (Dialogus) (SWV 444)
CD 14 [52:44]
St John Passion (SWV 481)
Die Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (SWV 478)
Marzena Lubaszka, Elzbieta Adamczyk, Magdalena Niebywalska (soprano), David Munderloh, Vincent Lièvre-Picard (alto), Gerd Türk, Hervé Lamy, Giovanni Cantarini (tenor), Bas Ramselaar, Walter Testolin, Lisandro Abadie (bass), Alberto Stevanin (viola da braccio), Il Sonar parlante - concerto di viole; Matteo Messori (organ)
rec. August 2005, Chiesa di S. Pietro, Groppo di Albareto (Parma), Italy
CD 15-17 [53:44 + 44:44 + 59:42]
Kleine Geistliche Konzerte II, 1639 (SWV 306-337)
Musicalische Exequien, 1636 (SWV 279-281)
CD 18-19 [62:06 + 49:54]
Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648 (SWV 369-397)
Anna Mikolajczyk, Anna Niewiedzial, Marzena Lubaszka, Kamila Kulakowska, Jana Reiner, Astrid Werner, Stanislava Mihalcová, Ivana Bilej Brouková, Gabriela Eibenová (soprano), Maciej Gocman, Rolf Ehlers, Nils Giebelhausen (alto), Tobias Hunger (alto, tenor), Michael Schaffrath, Stephan Gähler (tenor), Walter Testolin, Johannes Schmidt, Bogdan Makal (bass), Arno Paduch (cornett), Sebastian Krause, Kentaro Wada, Bernhard Ziesch, Ercole Nisini, Volkmar Jäger, Sebastiano Ricci (sackbut), Alessandro Orsaria (organ), Matteo Messori (spinettino, organ)
rec. July and August 2008, Church of Opawa (Silesia), Poland