Paul Hillier's Dacapo release of a timely Matthäus-Passion concludes his four-year project to perform and record Schütz's large-scale narrative works. The describtion of it as a ‘hair-shirt Easter treat' may at first glance seem less than flattering. It is, however, a reflection on the stark nature of the work. There are no instruments or continuo support, so it relies almost entirely on the words of the gospel. Simon Heighes writes ..."for the first time we have access to truly excellent performances ... since there are no harmonic bass line to anchor the proceedings, it takes a crack bunch of singers to keep this music bang in tune ... Hillier and his singers manage all this convinsingly."
(Editorial by Màire Taylor)
International Record Review April 2011 - http://recordreview.co.uk/index.php
Review by Simon Heighes
This volume concludes Paul Hillier's four-year project to perform and record all six of Heinrich Schütz's large-scale narrative works with Ars Nova Copenhagen. There are three Passions (1666) - Matthew (recorded here), Luke and John - The Christmas History, the Seven Last Words and the Resurrection History. While the last three works all avail themselves of the luxury of instrumental accompaniment, the three Passions were all written in a radically pared-down style which dispensed with instruments and continuo entirely. For music written in the second half of the seventeenth century this was abstinence indeed.
Because of their engaging dramatic style and instrumental colour, the Christmas History, the Seven Last Words and the Resurrection History have all become quite well known and have often been recorded. The real significance of Hillier's Schütz series is that for the first time we have access to truly excellent performances of all three Passions, works which have often been overlooked as too stark for an entertaining CD or even an uplifting concert. The real truth, though, is that the Passions are much harder to bring off convincingly than Schütz's other sacred narratives. For one thing they rely entirely on the words of the gospel (apart from the short opening and closing choruses), so dramatically they are quite tightly circumscribed and offer no room for emotional reflection.
There are practical challenges too. Since there is no harmonic bass line to anchor the proceedings, it takes a crack bunch of singers to keep this music bang in tune, and keep it interesting. Hillier and his singers manage all this convincingly. As a series, Hillier decided to opt for a different Evangelist for each Passion, though retain the same Christus as a centre of gravity. Each of these Evangelists has a slightly different approach. For the St Matthew Passion recorded here, Julian Podger matches the sparseness of Schütz's plainsong-like lines - often hovering around a single reciting tone - with suitably restrained vocal production. He focuses on the clear projection of the words but brings just enough weight to Schütz's simple inflexions to underscore grammatical emphases but not raise our expectations of actual melodic interest or word-painting. What keeps the attention here is the way that all the solo singers - including those drawn from the choir for the minor roles - inject just enough urgency and drama into their singing for us to feel the power of the unfolding story, but not so much as to disturb the work's underlying serenity and understatement. The bass-baritone Bloch Jespersen is especially good at this, suggesting both the introverted and more outspoken sides of Jesus's utterances with really very few notes at his disposal.
At 12 strong, Ars Nova Copenhagen is arguably a little large; an ensemble of one or two singers per part would have been more likely, though the extra voices here do add variety to the minor solo roles. The brief flanking choruses and the pithy utterances of the crowd which punctuate the narrative offer the only harmonic interest in the work. There are some wonderfully painted, perfectly tuned dissonances in the opening four-part chorus, and a wistful, keening sorrow to the concluding chorus. Best of all are the powerful turbas in which Schütz used a variety of means (like simple imitative part writing) to suggest a multitude - they are delivered here with dramatic sensitivity and spot-on timing.
This is music which needs to be listened to in one uninterrupted sitting, texts and translations in hand, and the modern world held at bay. A hair-shirt Easter treat.