Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586 - 1630)
Israelsbrunnlein (1623) [94.23]
Dresdner Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. Emmauskirche, Dresden, 22-27 March 2000; Konzertsaal der Hochschule fur Musik, Dresden, 2-4 March 2012
CARUS 83.350 [47.07 + 47.25]
Schein was one of Bach’s predecessors as cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He had been a boy chorister in Dresden and trained at Leipzig University, working in Weimar before settling in Leipzig. He was a friend of Heinrich Schutz, but unlike Schutz he never made the journey to Italy. That being said, he managed to absorb the Italian madrigal style to a remarkable degree. He wrote alternating collections of sacred and secular music with the intention of providing music which can be used in worship and in social gatherings.
His most spectacular work is Israelsbrunnlein (Israel’s Fountain), a collection of 26 motets written to German Biblical texts but in the Italian madrigal style. The short texts are taken from the Psalms (the fountain of the title) and other books in the Old Testament. The words are not liturgical and the motets seem to have served no liturgical function. In the motets Schein uses Italianate techniques of word-painting to develop the expressivity of the music, but using German texts and accentuation.
The purpose of these pieces is debatable. There is a suggestion that they were intended for special occasions and academic or civic functions. It is doubtful if the boys of the Thomanerchor would have been capable of coping with the treble and alto vocal parts, though we should not forget that boys’ voices then broke rather later. Even if this music was performed in a liturgical context, in style it was as easily capable of being sung in a domestic setting. We should consider the music in the context of the body of vocal chamber music being developed by composers in the 17th century, with an emphasis on sacred texts as well as secular. Schein’s music would bring the madrigal style of Italy into a devout Lutheran household.
These performances, were recorded in two sessions over ten years apart. It is a testament to performers and recording engineers that the different tracks do not stand out too much, but create more of a unified whole. The choir used consists of 22 people in 2000 and 16 in 2012 with a continuo group of lute/theorbo, cello and organ. Though, once you know that the tracks were recorded at different times, it is rather easy to become obsessive about spotting differences.
The vocal performances are excellent technically, with fine control from the choir and a nice sense of line and blend. There is good attention to the words so that the syllables dance in the way that madrigalian writing should. That said, I can’t help feeling that Hans-Christoph Rademann’s speeds are rather too stately. It is a testament to the choir’s feeling for the music that they make it work at a steady pace.
The other problem that I have is the size of the performing group. The tradition in the performance of the Lutheran motet was generally to have one singer per part. This is the structure on which Bach’s music is based and the cause of all the discussion about the size of the choir in his pieces. If you consider these pieces as sacred madrigals, to be performed in a domestic setting, then the number of voices is still too big.
These performances are fine, as far as they go and you could well be perfectly happy with them. The motets are rather episodic in nature and the programme does not really benefit from being played at one sitting. This is a collection to dip in an out of and, if you do that, then I found that the specific drawbacks that I mentioned above rather diminish.
The CD booklet includes articles about Schein and his music along with texts and translations.
Schein’s work is rather under-represented on disc and the Dresdner Kammerchor are to be congratulated for managing, finally, to complete their collection of the composer’s masterwork and for allowing us to hear it in performances of great charm.
Robert Hugill
Performances of great charm.