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Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
Israelsbrunnlein (1623) [94:23]
Dresdner Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. Emmauskirche, Dresden, 22-27 March 2000; Konzertsaal der Hochschule für Musik, Dresden, 2-4 March 2012
Texts and translations provided
CARUS 83.350 [47.07 + 47.25]

This two-disc set honours the 800th anniversary of the Schola Thomana Leipzig by presenting a complete performance of the Israelsbrünnlein by Johann Hermann Schein, one of JS Bach’s most illustrious predecessors as kantor. The collection has always been held to be the most important set of motets produced by a German composer in the seventeenth-century. The twenty-six pieces are written in the prevailingly popular Italian madrigal form, and textually the Old Testament is the most used source. As the notes make plain, they were written for either festive or solemn occasions, and the music goes a long way to bind madrigalian and polyphonic strands together to produce a powerful and exciting semi-hybrid.
There is a point to note, however, regarding this set. Whilst a number have been newly recorded (March 2012) seventeen were taped back in Dresden in 2000 and were originally released at the time. Thus in order to celebrate that anniversary, Hans-Christoph Rademann and his Dresden choir has gone into the concert hall of the Hochschule für Musik to complete the cycle. Also the original recording location was the more appropriate acoustic of the Emmauskirche. Try as I might, however - and I thought it particularly important here - I didn’t detect any great fluctuation between venues beyond an inevitably greater weight of resonance in the church recordings, and a dryer one in the studio, so the engineering team deserve considerable applause.
In addition to the change in recording venue there’s the matter of the choir itself which has seen an almost total overhaul in the last twelve years. Very few singers, in fact only two, remain from the 2000 session. Yet again, though, this makes no real difference to the choral sonority or to the level of musicianship to be heard.
Luther’s German is succinct, unflowery, and very much to-the-point, textual ambiguity being obviously inimical to him. Schein, who was almost certainly the most musically gifted of the Leipzig Kantors before the arrival of Bach, crafted this series of madrigals rooted in rich, poetic archaisms that were not to be matched in German music until the rise of Schütz. There are three or four singers to a part and Rademann ensures that the instrumental accompaniments - whether theorbo, lute, cello or organ - make their full expressive point, but remain well-balanced. The fusion of Mediterranean richness and German motet proves wholly successful, and this performance of the cycle proves equally worthy. The choir’s approach to Schein is as successful as its singing of Schütz, a composer with whom it’s strongly associated, and there can be no higher compliment than that.
Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Robert Hugill