Heinrich Schütz: Die Sieben Worte; Johannes-Passion
25 February 2011
Ronald E. Grames
I never cease to be amazed at the range of
musical styles that Paul Hillier and his always brilliant choirs can bring
delightfully to life. One wonders if there is any period in which the
peripatetic English conductor is not in sympathy. As it is, he works primarily
from the Baroque backwards and the 20th century forward, but his limited
forays into the Classical period (Bortniansky, for instance) and Romantic (the
part-songs of Schubert, Schumann, Reger, et al.) show him equally at home. As
this may be, the prolific German (and sometimes Danish) early- Baroque composer
Heinrich Schütz is well in Hillier's usual range of operations, and Hillier has
been making a series of recordings of this master's larger-scale liturgical
works with his Copenhagen ensemble. This is the third of four projected releases.
The first two were warmly welcomed in these pages by Fanfare's resident reviewer of choral music of this period,
J. F. Weber: the Lukas-Passion
in 33:2, and the Weihnachtshistorie and Auferstehungshistorie in 33:5. The fourth release will allow Hillier
to revisit the Mathæus- Passion, which he recorded for EMI in 1983 with his Hilliard Ensemble. It set
the standard for the work-"notably lighter and more delicate than anything heard
before," as Weber aptly puts it-but has not been available for some time. Both
of these works come from Schütz's later years, when old age, personal tragedy,
and the privations of the Thirty Years War had stripped his music of most of
its earlier Renaissance and Italian influences, leaving a directness of expression and an emotional austerity that is
profoundly moving. Listeners coming to the Johannes-Passion from Bach's dramatic work will be struck by
this relative restraint in Schütz's version. The setting is unaccompanied, in keeping
with the performance expectations of the Dresden court for such works, and
there are none of Bach's solo reflections on the text. Rather, this concise
liturgical reading, built on the patterns of the text, inspires by heightening
the emotional impact of the passion story itself. A solo tenor, here the
sweet-toned, expressive Adam Riis, carries the narrative as the Evangelist,
Jesus' words are sung nobly by bass Jacob Bloch Jesperson, and four members of the 13-voice chorus take
the brief solo statements of Peter, Pilate, the maid at the door, and the High
The crowds are portrayed by the pure-toned
chorus with ringing conviction. The closing prayer is heart-breakingly beautiful.
The somewhat earlier Die Sieben Worte is more overtly dramatic, for while the Evangelist's recitative-like
narration, shared among members of an SATB quartet, is again austere, Jesus'
statements are written with more expressive freedom for the tenor soloist.
Where the organ accompaniment provides a relatively static bass line for the
narration, Schütz's setting of the words of Jesus is made richer with an independent
basso continuo role for the organ and two viola da gamba lines woven into the
vocal fabric. The composer does not specify the instrumentation here, or in
opening and closing sinfonias played by a consort of five instruments.
In previous recordings the sinfonias have been played by a string ensemble,
but Hillier has three sackbuts join the viola da gambas. The resulting doleful
sound touchingly sets the mood for the crucifixion story it frames. What more
can one say? Hillier, soloist Adam Riis, and the vocalists and players from the
Ars Nova Copenhagen Schütz project are simply perfect. Add to that the fact
that the performance is enhanced by a recording both reverberant and
crystal-clear, and it is hard to imagine either work ever being better presented.