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Paul Hillier's diary in GRAMOPHONE

As his Schütz series on Dacapo draws to a close, the chief conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen reveals the importance of story-telling in choral music 

GRAMOPHONE April 2011 - www.gramophone.co.uk

By Paul Hillier

"I wanted to record the narrative works of Schütz because I am interested in singing stories. There's nothing wrong with vocal music that does other things of course - describing nature, professing love, celebrating wine, uttering a prayer, decorating a ceremony. We choral musicians frequently make whole concerts (or CDs) of such things, using contrasts and balance to try and hold the audience's interest. But when you take a sequence of songs and weave them together into a narrative of some kind, then you create something that is more than the sum of its part, and each element resonates with added meaning."

"Choral music faces many problems today, not least that of finding an audience, and one reason for this is our lack of interest in the words which, after all, usually comprise half the piece. We may do them professional honour, through clear and meaningful projection, but that's not always enough. Very often the words don't really have anything to say to a modern audience. They exist in beautiful isolation and we barely notice them except as stepping stones to get to the music. This is fine occasionally, but all the time? Eventually, with songs as with poems, we need some kind of context in which to position ourselves in relation to what we are hearing, some kind of narrative (in the broadest sense) that helps us find our place."


 "Choral music faces many problems

today, not least that of finding an audience"


"So, whether performing early music or new music or even Romantic music, I believe it's important to reassert the values of story-telling. In the past few years I've commissioned a number of new works by asking the composer to tell a story using a small chorus (or consort) who would enact the individual role while also functioning as a "Greek" chorus, framing the tale and perhaps commenting on the action from time to time. One such work was David Lang's The little Match Girl Passion, which last year won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy for the recording."


"Schütz is a major figure in the history of music and yet he is not often performed. I put this down to the usual early-music problem: lots of pieces, mostly rather short (three to five minutes typically); and to do Schütz justice you need a rather unusual array of voices and instruments, at a cost that is normally only justified when you use them for a whole concert. But I do enjoy his music, so I looked again and it dawned on me that six of his largest works are ones that tell a story, using a narrator and several characters. What worked in new music would surely work in old: and so I resolved to record them all over a period of four years."

"The six pieces we have now recorded rank as some of the finest of the 17th century: three Passions (Matthew, Luke and John) which are entirely unaccompanied, and three works that use a variety of instruments: a Christmas History, the Seven Last Words and the Resurrection History.  The Christmas History is fresh, tuneful and crisply characterized through its instrumentation. The Seven Last Words is an ineffable masterpiece. The Resurrection History closes the narrative sequence, though it was the first to be composed and is the nearest in feeling to Schütz's mentor, Monteverdi. It presents two unusual and highly effective novelties: the narrator is accompanied by a quartet of viols, who are instructed to improvise following the singer and using the chord patters provided; while Christus is represented by two voices singing in duet."

"For the Passion, Schütz invented his own quasi-plainchant for the Evangelist, Christus and other characters; only the chorus sing polyphonically. One of my first decisions in planning this series was to create a natural variety by choosing a different tenor for each Evangelist, while keeping the same bass singer as Christus. Each tenor had his own very distinct way of telling the story and this inevitably coloured our collective response to each of the three works in turn. Another early decision was prompted by my visit to the Brücke Museum in Berlin. Here I saw Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's sculpted reliefs of four Evangelist heads and decided to make them the cover art for our series."




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