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The Vale of Tears
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Hört auf mit Weinen und Klagen [01:14]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281) [32:28]
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin [01:52]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)* [13:40]
Agnes Zsigovics*, Ellen McAteer (soprano), Daniel Taylor*, Kyle Guilfoyle (alto), Rebecca Claborn (contralto), Rufus Müller*, Isaiah Bell (tenor), Alexander Dobson*, Geoffrey Sirett (baritone)
Choir of the Schola Cantorum, Orchestra of the Theatre of Early Music/Daniel Taylor
rec. April 2014, Humbercrest United Church, Toronto, Canada
Texts not included
ANALEKTA AN29144 [49:45]

The title of this disc is a phrase from the main work in the programme, Schütz's Musicalische Exequien: "This life is but a vale of tears: fear, misery and affliction everywhere. Our brief stay upon this earth is but woe, and whosoever thinketh on it is in constant strife". It is a stanza from the hymn Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt (Johann Leon, 1582/89). It expresses a thought which was widespread in the time Schütz composed his work and was still very much alive when Bach composed his cantatas. His cantata BWV 165 refers to the cause of the trouble which mankind has to deal with: "The sinful birth of damned Adam's legacy bears God's wrath, death and destruction. For what is born of the flesh is nothing but flesh, infected by sin, poisoned and defiled".

The Musicalische Exequien belongs among the most famous and most solemn of Schütz's works. It was commissioned by Heinrich Posthumus 'the younger' of Reuss-Gera, an educated and cultivated ruler. When he was over sixty he started to make preparations for his death. Part of these preparations was an exact plan specifying what was to happen at the funeral ceremony and in which sequence - including the music to be performed, for which he commissioned Heinrich Schütz. The Musicalische Exequien is not a sort of German protestant version of the Roman Catholic Requiem. It was part of a funeral procedure which was rooted in pre-Reformation tradition of exequies (Latin: exequiae = accompanying a dead person out). It consists of three parts: the transfer of the body to the church, the celebration of the Requiem Mass and the procession to the grave. Being part of a funeral procedure this work could perhaps best be compared with Purcell's Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary.

The three parts are composed in different ways. Part 1, comprising 21 quotations from the Bible and from hymns are set in the form of a German Mass (Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Missa). The quotations from the Bible are set as small sacred concertos, the hymns as 6-part motets. Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis), Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace). Here Schütz has specified that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

Unfortunately this indication has been ignored by Daniel Taylor. The third part is performed here in the traditional cori spezzati manner which takes away the special effect the allocation of the second 'choir' would create if Schütz's indication had been observed. That is not the only issue here. For the first part Schütz indicates six solo voices and a cappella of six additional voices. That is observed in that we hear six soloists and the choir. However, the latter comprises 26 singers including the soloists; that by far exceeds the size which Schütz required. The second part is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Considering that Schütz required 12 voices in total for the first part a performance with one voice per part in this section seems most plausible. Here probably the full choir is involved. The contributions of the soloists are various. The sopranos are very good and sing with great clarity, but in some of the male voices a slight vibrato has crept in. That is not required here and especially damages the ensembles of two or three voices of which there are quite a number in this work. All in all this performance cannot be rated among the best; the most satisfying recording is that of Vox Luminis (review).

The Musicalische Exequien are embraced by two harmonizations from the pen of Michael Praetorius, one of the main composers in Protestant Germany around 1600. The two chorales were sung at the end of the burial service for Heinrich Posthumus. They are sung well and show the right approach to this repertoire which is also notable in Schütz. It is just a pity that it hasn't been better executed.

The disc ends with the cantata O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165). It is an early cantata and probably dates from 1715 when Bach worked at Weimar. The text is from the pen of Salomo Franck who included it in his cycle of texts for the ecclesiastical year 1715; this cantata is for Trinity Sunday which was one Sunday after Whitsunday. One of the readings of that Sunday was chapter 3 from the gospel of St John, which describes a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Its central issue is the rebirth from the spirit. That rebirth is symbolized by baptism which explains the title of the cantata: "O holy washing of spirit and water". That is also the first line of the aria which opens this cantata. The third aria refers to "life, salvation and blessedness" which are the fruits of Jesus' love. The last aria is about Jesus' death as man's salvation. The line of thought in this cantata makes it a good companion to Schütz's funeral music.

The fact that this cantata comprises three arias, separated by two recitatives - one of them accompanied - and ends with a very short four-part chorale suggests that it was intended for a performance with four singers. In this respect the use of a full choir in the chorale seems unjustified. The three soloists in the arias do a good job. Agnes Zsigovics has a fine voice and deals well with the long melismas in the opening aria. The second aria is a prayer and Daniel Taylor sings it with much sensitivity. Rufus Müller is alright in the closing aria, but I find his slight vibrato disappointing. The two recitatives are for bass; Alexander Dobson's performance is not very subtle and rather undifferentiated. His German pronunciation is a bit of a problem.

Considering all aspects of this recording I am not overly enthusiastic. Schütz doesn't come off badly but the performance has some considerable weaknesses. There are better performances on the market and this one is not up to the competition. That leaves Bach's cantata; even if it would receive an ideal performance - which is not the case - that would not be enough to commend this disc.

The short playing time and the lack of texts with translations in the booklet doesn't make things any better. Even though the lyrics may be available on the internet, they should be part of a production like this. Analekta doesn't even offer them on its website.

Johan van Veen



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