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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Psalmen Davids: Mehrchörige Psalmen (after 1619)
Dresdner Kreuzchor/Rudolf Mauersberger
rec. 8-14 October 1965, Lukaskirche, Desden

Born exactly one century before the late Baroque masters Bach and Handel, Heinrich Schütz is the most important composer of the early German Baroque. After a long and legendary life, his epitaph in the old Frauenkirche of Dresden states Saeculi sui Musicus excellentissimus (The most excellent musician of his time).
The collection of choral works known as the Psalmen Davids (Psalms of David) came relatively early in Schütz’s career, not long after his return to Dresden from an extended period of study in Venice. In fact some of the music may have been composed before his return. The influence of Giovanni Gabrieli in particular is noticeable, since Schütz is concerned to adapt the polychoral and concertato techniques he had learned in Venice to the new demands of his native language and the Lutheran ritual.
The most important distinction to be found in these pieces is the preference for using two types of choral ensemble, the ‘coro favorito’ and the ‘coro capella’. The former is smaller and more soloistic than the latter, which is more resonant and powerful. Also the favorito choral writing tends to be more melismatic and elaborate than the more massive and syllabic writing for the capella group. However, Schütz often goes further, by having two four-part choirs of each type allowing for the kind of antiphony that he learnt all about in Venice.
If this is the theory behind the music, what of the experience it offers the listener in performance? To begin with, both the performers and the location in this reissued recording from 1965 could hardly be more appropriate. The music was conceived with the resonant acoustic of the Royal Chapel at Dresden in mind, and the re-mastered recording has succeeded in capturing the atmosphere and space implied. Moreover the placing of the various choral groupings is effectively managed, as for example in the opening measures of Psalm 121: Ich hebe meine Augen auf zu den Bergen (I will lift up my eyes to the hills).
At 75 minutes this disc offers full value, but I wonder whether listening to one Psalm setting after another is what was intended or what is most rewarding. The pieces do vary in length and in character, and the shorter items can be the most effective. For example, Psalm 2: Warum toben die Heiden (Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?) has a strongly articulated disposition of the two groups of double choruses, smaller and larger. This is communicated particularly effectively by Rudolf Mauersberger and the Dresdner Kreuzchor in a satisfying acoustic context. It is perhaps the most successful performance among this collection.
Schütz allowed for flexible interpretations of instrumental and continuo contributions, even suggesting that vocal lines could on occasion by replaced by instrumental. However in these performances it is the vocal contributions that dominate, and the instrumental lines are often submerged beneath the vocal textures in merely supporting roles. Just occasionally a viola da gamba may emerge from the dense texture, in a most rewarding way, and it would have served the music well had it been more often. Perhaps this is the main reason why, when listening to these skilfully projected performances, less can mean more.
The other drawback is the complete lack of texts and translations. These can be hunted down online, but whether the editions will conform to Lutheran principles is another matter. Nor are there any translations of the insert notes, and this omission makes this issue very much a target for the enthusiastic connoisseur rather than for the wider musical public. That is a pity, since Schütz is one of the great composers, whose music will reward those prepared to give it time and attention.
Terry Barfoot