Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Psalmen Davids: Mehrchörige Psalmen (after
Dresdner Kreuzchor/Rudolf Mauersberger
rec. 8-14 October 1965, Lukaskirche, Desden
BERLIN CLASSICS ETERNA 0300370BC [75:08]
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.