Heinrich Schütz: Complete Recording Box II

Dresdner Kammerchor, Hans-Christoph Rademann
(= vols. 9-14 previously released separately)
Carus 83.042

Why are we so reluctant to accord Schütz his place on Parnassus that his unquestionable stature demands? I’m not the only one to believe he may well qualify as the most neglected of all great composers. It must be confessed that I am not free of guilt myself. Every time I hear his music my reaction is invariably the same: ‘Good Lord! Why on earth don’t I listen to this man’s music more often?’ So the arrival of an 8-CD set taken from Carus’ award-winning intégrale has provided a golden opportunity to atone by doing just that. Not that I’ve binge listened; rather the reverse in fact – there must have been times when Brian wondered if he was ever going to see this review. But each return to the set has brought renewed admiration and awe at the staggeringly high quality of an output that truly represents a summation of mid-17th-century sacred music. Of course, not everything is a masterpiece, but there is not a work here – large or small – that does not testify to the profound spirituality and level of communication that informs Schütz’s settings of sacred texts.

A few general observations before brief notes on individual CDs. The performances under Hans-Christoph Rademann are almost without exception of the highest quality, which is all the more remarkable given the large number of personnel involved in varied works demanding very diverse vocal and instrumental performing forces. My sole major reservation is that I feel that Rademann uses choral forces that are often too large; I feel this applies especially to Symphoniae Sacrae III (1650), which surely need only single voices to supplement the favoriten  (soloists)? This is perhaps also the place to note the splendid sound quality and outstanding documentation that includes copious notes and full texts. There is, however, no English translation, although those sufficiently interested and determined will find many of the texts in the Bible, references always being given.

CD 1. The Auferstehunghistorie  (Resurrection Story) is the earliest of Schütz’s oratorios, designed for Easter Vespers and first performed in 1623. It shows clear signs of the Venetian influences that played an important role in the composer’s development, but – particularly given the subject matter – exercises quiet restraint rather than exuberance. The Evangelist’s narrative is largely in the stile recitativo and accompanied by a rich tapestry of gambas. The extensive role is superbly taken by tenor Georg Poplutz and all the solo singers are excellent, though the light-weight bass Felix Rumpf might have been a more authoritative Jesus. Among several extra works, the exceptional dialogue duet “Es gingen zweene Menschen” (the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) vividly illustrates how exceptional an opera composer Schütz might have become. (His sole opera, Dafne is among music’s most grievous losses).
CD 2. Justifiably one of the composer’s most popular works, the Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) is probably also the most lovable, its vibrant colour and freshness all the more extraordinary when one recalls Schütz was in his 76th year when the oratorio was composed in 1660. Poplutz is again a supremely expressive Evangelist, while soprano Gerlinde Sämann’s charming Angel is another major plus in a vital performance that stands comparison with any of the better versions currently in the catalogue. In addition to the oratorio, there are a number of motets associated with Christmas, among them the exquisitely lovely choral setting “Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding,” SWV450.

CD 3. At the opposite polarity to the brilliant colours of the Weihnachtshistorie  are three Passion settings made by Schütz at the end of his long, industrious life. Of these the best known is the Matthäus-Passion  (St Matthew Passion), a work in which everything is pared down to essentials – it consists largely of chant, throwing the crowd interjections into the sharpest relief – that might have produced a forbiddingly austere impression, were it not for an astonishing directness that projects the story with compelling clarity. Poplutz is again a marvellous Evangelist, singing with great subtlety, though the splendid Felix Schwandtke (Caiphas) might have made for a more imposing Jesus than Rumpf.

CDs 4 & 5. Published in 1650 Symphoniae sacrae  III is a sumptuous collection of concerted works on texts drawn from the Psalms and New Testament. Free from the horrors of the 30 Years War and the consequential emasculation of his performing forces, this magnificently celebratory and variegated collection finds Schütz returning to the brilliance and vitality of his earlier Venetian writing. Starting from the exquisite setting of “Der Herr ist mein Hirte” (Psalm 23) the collection progresses to the highly dramatic “Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich” to the splendour of that ultimate Lutheran hymn of praise, “Nun danket alle Gott”. With the exception of the caveat regarding choral forces noted above, the performances are outstanding on all counts.

CD 6. Like the St Matthew Passion, the Johannespassion  (St John Passion) employs an extreme economy of means, the story compellingly transmitted with a directness in which expressivity is again only enhanced by the apparently austere setting. The climax at “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is finished) is quite as overpowering as anything found in more grandiose settings. The Evangelist here is the excellent Jan Kobow, the weakness the experienced but lugubrious bass Harry van der Kamp. Again the contrapuntal choruses provide stark contrast. The Passion is preceded – as it is in the St Matthew Passion, by the Litany, in this case with singing of angelic purity from sopranos Ulrike Hofbauer and Marie Luise Werneburg.

CDs 7 & 8. Dating from 1629 Symphoniae sacrae  I predates the third set by more than 20 years, deriving from the musical travels on which he soaked up a variety of influences, in particular in this instance Venetian music. These are small-scale concertos (there is no chorus) for between one and three voices and continuo. Notwithstanding their remarkable variety, in particular a group based on texts from the Song of Solomon Schütz embraces the lascivious texts with a degree of sensuality rivalling Monteverdi in a way that might surprise those who regard him as a stern Lutheran. The thoroughly idiomatic and involving performances are spread between ten singers, all of whom have already distinguished themselves on earlier discs.

Brian Robins