Schütz: Symphoniae Sacrae I

Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
92:42 (2 CDs)
cpo 777 929-2

Schütz assembled Symphoniae Sacrae I for publication in Venice in 1629, and the music he selected marks the bridge between the earlier Psalmen Davids (1619) – large-scale choral works in as many as four choirs – and the later more intimate solo and duet works with continuo that formed Geistliche Konzerte from 1636 & 1639. Only in 1650 comes Symphoniae Sacrae III, a further group of large-scale works which signals the renewed possibilities brought by the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648.

In Symphoniae Sacrae I, Schütz writes sacred music that has a suspended, almost timeless quality. Vocal duets with a pair of violins or cornetti, a soprano and tenor with three fagotti, single voices with pairs of violins or a vocal duet with cornetto and sackbut, and David’s lament for Absalom for bass and four sackbuts offer sound pictures far removed from the essentially choral music of the previous generations. Here are highly coloured setting of (for the most part) words from the Psalter or the Song of Songs where vocal parts as well as the instrumental obligati demand a high level of technical virtuosity as well as a developed emotional intelligence from the performers. This isn’t your standard church music, and it certainly owes a good deal to the ideals of the ‘new music’, as well as to rising possibilities occasioned by the development of the newer melodic instruments – violins and fagotti as well as the established cornets and sackbuts.

In this pair of CDs, the performers exhibit a high degree of technical competence married with a desire to let the music speak for itself. The performances are clean but very slightly underwhelming, although that is better than having to endure singers with too much of a soloistic ego: this group includes the distinguished and experienced Hans Jörg Mammel and Harry van der Kamp. The blend and balance between the voices and instruments is good, and only occasionally did I wonder whether I would have varied the organ, harp and chitarrone of the continuo with a regal – a favourite continuo instrument in Germany with brass at this period. In this music, the words of the Latin texts are all-important and are delivered confidently, audibly and fluently. The instrumentalists sound as if they have listened to the singers’ articulation, and make an effort to shape their phrases to it. And it is good to have this marvellous music – so key to Schütz’ long and partly hidden development – presented freshly and scored intelligently.

Why then do I not feel more enthusiastic about this production? Partly I suspect because Symphoniae Sacrae I is so evidently ‘work in progress.’ Schütz has come a long way, but there is further to go – and while he has absorbed much of the language of the seconda prattica, there has yet to emerge his mature synthesis, his true voice; and this take reflects this to some extent. But partly also because some other performances – I discount the older version by the Leipzig Capella Fidicina under Hans Gruß, preferring that of the complete Schütz Edition (Vol I) with Capella Augustana under Matteo Messori (now issued complete by Brilliant Classics) – feel as though they have a more committed approach and are recorded more brightly. The acid test for Symphonie Sacrae I is the tripping rhythm of the tenor in In te Domine speravi on the word “libera”. Cordes’ singer doesn’t quite have the rhythmic abandon required to convince listeners that it is for freedom that you are praying. So while I am glad to hear this version, it is not automatically my first choice for this enormously attractive and significant music.

David Stancliffe