Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Aus der Tiefe (SW 25, 1619) [3:46]
Das ist je gewisslich wahr (SWV 277, 1631) [4:19]
Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele? (SWV 353, 1647) [5:06]
Selig sind die Toten (SWV 391, 1648) [3:16]
Zweierlei bitte ich (SWV 360, 1647) [5:15]
Musikalische Exequien (SWV 279-281, 1636) [28:44]
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 2014, Predikherenkerk, Leuven, Belgium. ACCENT ACC24299 [50:29]
The booklet notes for this release concisely outline the genesis of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien. He was employed by the Electoral Prince of Saxony in Dresden, Heinrich II Posthumus Reuss, who became preoccupied with death in his final years. The Prince developed his own elaborate “Leichprocess” or funerary event, a part of which was an expensive copper coffin decorated with Biblical texts. A detail of this object can be glimpsed on the cover for this release. It was these texts, printed and translated in the booklet, that Reuss’s widow asked Schütz to set to music – creating, as a result, a Lutheran counterpart to the Latin Exequien of the Catholic Church.
Restricted to between six and eight vocal parts with basso-continuo accompaniment, the Musikalische Exequien is a relatively intimate setting of the chosen texts, Schütz using sophisticated musical language but keeping a sense of clarity as a feature of the piece as a whole. The longest part is the Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-messe that keeps up its spell for nearly 22 minutes. With no extra access points you have to keep up from the beginning if you want to follow the text, but this is worth doing as the emotional weight of the music is closely coupled to the words – as you might expect, but with the singing in German you might not catch every nuance. Schütz alternates smaller vocal groups with fuller choral sounds, changing texture and perspective through solos and duos, male and female, every imaginable combination of the resources to hand. The final Canticum Simeonis is also replete with echo voices placed at a distance and creating an additional halo of sound around the already special atmosphere of the performance.
There would always have been an option to add instruments or have an augmented ‘choir’ for such a recording, but Sigiswald Kuijken has gone for a soloistic ensemble with no added adornments. The transparency of this approach with the beautifully prepared vocal performances placed in a fine acoustic make for a remarkable experience. Listening demands focus and attention, and there is little point in letting this music flow over you like water from a duck’s back. You need to attend with the same concentration as if you were performing the work yourself – that to me is the way to gain the most from this music.
There are a few recordings around which cover all or part of the Musikalische Exequien, but few if any that beat Kuijken’s recording. The Carus label has a reasonably decent one with full chorus and added instruments directed by Günter Graulich, but this is a version that highlights the advantages to be had from a lighter touch and avoidance of imposed drama over tender expression. Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi also has a bigger vocal group but is closer in spirit to Kuijken if you prefer wider contrast between solo and massed choir.
The five pieces performed in advance of the main feature on this Accent release are all based on the subject of “death and redemption”. They were all published during the troubled period of the Thirty Years’ War which resulted in the power and influence of just about everyone including Habsburg Empire being severely curtailed. These are all relatively brief and “serve to prepare the listener, both spiritually and musically, for the principle work”. This approach works very well indeed, and is better than adding such things at the end as more obvious ‘filler’ material. Each piece is a jewel of its kind, and the whole recording is a feast of melancholy reflection. In some ways this can be seen as a companion to La Petite Bande’s recording of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri (review), and makes for an almost equally moving experience.