Heinrich Schütz: Die Sieben Worte; Johannes-Passion
17 May 2012
James ManheimHeinrich Schütz's musical representations of the crucifixion of Jesus are milestones of German music
before Bach, but they're much less well known than Bach's Passion settings. As conductor Paul Hillier
has pointed out in connection with these Danish releases, they're something of a hard sell - especially the extremely spare, unaccompanied, and chant-like Johannes-Passion, written late in Schütz's life. This work divides the words of the biblical Passion According to John among an Evangelist, Christ, the other characters in the narrative, and a chorus that frames the action with a short opening announcement and final prayer but elsewhere adopting the role of the crowd calling for Christ's crucifixion. The effect is economical but extremely powerful, for this setting, with the angry outbursts from the crowd, is actually more dramatic than the other work included, Die Sieben Worte, SWV 478 (The Seven Words), which is more like a series of scenes realized in the concertato (contrasting groups) style of the time. The performance of the Johannes-Passion here is exceptional.
Hillier steers a course between a conventional choral performance and the one-voice-per-part movement, drawing the smaller solo parts from a chorus with three or four voices on each part. This is just right, and the entire group brings a hair-trigger intensity to music that elsewhere has been sung with an almost monastic quality. Die Sieben Worte has, in Hillier's hands, a completely different quality, with an emphasis on the sweetness of the solo voices and a gentle grouping of low instruments (the original forces of the work are uncertain). The sound from Denmark's DaCapo label, recorded at two different and acoustically suitable Copenhagen churches, is a strong point, as is the painting of John on the cover, by German expressionist artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff; Hillier's entire series of Schütz's sacred works has featured these paintings, which, though entirely anachronistic, are strangely effective. For the difficult Johannes-Passion, at least, this is likely to become a standard recording.