A richly-informed austerity – music by Heinrich Schütz, from the Tudor Consort

Heinrich Schütz: Musikalische Exequien (Funeral Music), SWV 279-281
Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthew Passion), SWV 479

The Tudor Consort, conducted by Peter Walls
Soloists: John Beaglehole (tenor), Simon Christie (bass-baritone), with Corinna Connor (cello), Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord), Michael Stewart (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 25 March 2016, 7.30pm

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is perhaps largely known as a precursor of J.S. Bach, in the development of baroque music. Peter Walls, in his pre-concert talk, referred quite extensively to Johann Sebastian. Thus it came as quite a shock to discover how different Schütz’s music was from that of Bach. Schütz was born a hundred years before the great master, and like him, was involved in music for the Lutheran Church, despite his training with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and later with Monteverdi. He spent much of his life employed as a musician at the court in Dresden, and it was for a nobleman at that court that he wrote the Musikalishce Exequien – commissioned during that person’s lifetime and completed with his approval of the settings.

The work is in three parts. The first, a concerto in the form of a German burial Mass consisted of Kyrie and Gloria in paraphrases in the German language, but with other texts incorporated in the Kyrie. The Gloria used chorales in addition to the Biblical texts. The second part was a Motet, ‘Lord, if I have but thee’, and the third, the Song of Simeon: Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’, both sung in German.

The choir sang on this occasion from a position directly in front of the altar. This made it impossible for those of the audience seated in the nave to see them. No-one had told me, as some of those in the audience that I spoke to had been told, that the extra seating in the choir stalls section of the church was not only for the talk, but also for the performance. It would have been a much more involving experience to have been sitting nearer the choir. Since the church was very well filled, this would have affected others more than it did me.

The English translations of the words of the works performed were shown on a screen placed in the choir stalls. I could read the words (just) but those on the right side of the church, or further back than perhaps the eight or ninth rows would not have been able to (I sat in the fourth row). One problem was that the screen needed to be hoisted a good deal higher for those in the nave to be able to read the lower lines, though admittedly that would have been somewhat neck-craning for those closer.

The Funeral Music was accompanied by cello, harpsichord and organ (Peter Walls said that Schütz would have had a larger orchestra). I could usually hear the cello, seldom the harpsichord but usually the organ. This was a ‘house’ organ, borrowed from Mark Whitfield, Bishop of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand. It had an attractive sound, but in the main, that sound was rather muffled, probably due to the number of bodies between it and the nave.

A solo voice sang the introit, then all joined in, but that voice continued to be rather prominent for a time. When the women’s voices joined in the sound became much more resonant. The position chosen meant the acoustics of the cathedral were not delivered to their full effect. The result was greater clarity; both choir and solo voices were very fine, with splendid tone. There were a few notes off the mark soon after the beginning, but these were few indeed amongst such a plethora of near-virtuoso singing; I heard no more intonation wobbles.

The louder passages from the choir, and indeed from the soloists, were very striking. The motet was more of a solid choral piece, with echo passages and plenty of counterpoint (though less chromatic than Bach’s motets). The third part involved three soloists in addition to the choir; they sang from the Cathedral’s organ loft, under Schütz’s instruction that they should be elsewhere than near the choir. (How did they read their scores in the darkened church, away from the lighting?)

After the interval came the Passion. This was sung in German, unaccompanied, and only the opening and closing choruses, short compared with Bach’s in his Passions, deviated from the Biblical text. Apart from those two choruses, the work consisted of tenor recitatives expounding the texts, solos from Jesus (Simon Christie), and solo voices from the choir interjecting with the words of Peter, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, false witnesses, scribes elders, and the servants of the Chief Priest, plus the choir singing as the mob. These added vocal variety; no chorales or arias were included.

Having the English words on the screen assisted greatly in following the story. Some of the recitative sections were quite lengthy, for example the section covering the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus, plus his interrogation before the Chief Priest. Since the singers could not be seen, this was at times an endurance test, given the hard seats.

However, all the soloists and the choir introduced variety and drama. Schütz hasn’t the drama of Bach, which is not to say that his St. Matthew Passion is devoid of drama, but Bach’s word-setting is without peer in this genre. Bach Collegium of Japan’s St. John Passion from the 2014 New Zealand Festival was on the radio earlier in the day, making it difficult to switch to the more restrained, plain style adopted by Schütz in his later years (as Wikipedia says, his style became simple and almost austere, but against this, he had sensitivity to the accents and meaning of the text). In particular I enjoyed (as did another listener, who asked for a repeat of this chorus) Bach’s setting of the words describing the Roman soldiers betting for Jesus’s garment; the cross-rhythms surely reflecting gambling’s unpredictable uncertainty.

Schütz’s work had more drama than the music heard in the first half, but on the other hand this was less underlined, being unaccompanied. This was a Passion in the original sense of the word, but not passionate in the modern sense. Schütz used word-painting, emotion and drama also, but of a more subtle and restrained kind, on the whole. The opening chorus featured lovely suspensions, between sumptuous chords.

The choir was effective and disciplined, their passages beautifully phrased. John Beaglehole (his performance a tour de force) and Simon Christie were characterful and accomplished; their voices, also those of the choir, carried well. Both intensity and grief were there in Christie’s tone in uttering the words from the cross. The words ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ were set with beauty and subtlety (as in Bach’s Passion). The final chorus was plaintively anguished, before a long drawn-out cry; the work ended with the Latin Kyrie, sung in an unaffected manner. It had an interesting and unexpected harmonic twist in the final chords.

It was distracting to see a young man in front of me making a video recording of much of the performance in video form, on his cellphone.

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