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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  CD

Catalogue Number:  8.226093

Barcode:  636943609323

Release month:  Mar 2010

Period:  Baroque


Heinrich Schütz: Die Sieben Worte; Johannes-Passion

25 February 2011  Fanfare
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 Priest's servant.


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.

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