Heinrich Schütz: Matthäus-Passion
05 April 2012
This appears to be the last installment of Hillier’s admirable Schutz series which has focused on the dramatic and narrative scores of this unheralded master. Those coming to this music expecting to hear a dumbed-down or slightly earlier St. Matthew like that of Bach will be disappointed—the two composers could not be further apart in temperament, even though both are firm representatives of the North German Protestant mentality. Bach’s music is to a large extent heart-on-sleeve; he goes for the big gestures and almost makes the narrative operatic, though he would not know what this meant. Schutz concentrates on the narrative almost exclusively, relegating the chorus to sections of mostly four voices that are metrical and regular, and harmonized—something that the narrative portions, which make up the vast majority of the piece, do not have.
As a result of this Spartan approach, most of the “story” is bare-boned and reliant on the composer’s not inconsiderable ability to project the essence of the drama in the figurations and curvature of the melody itself, along with the supple and nuanced projection of the soloists. The absence of instruments only heightens our awareness of the textual element in the composition. It’s not for all tastes and takes a lot of considered and methodical concentration to appreciate what Schutz has done—even many of his other works do not prepare the casual listener for this type of approach, but it does prove that he was a master of narrative output and certainly was able to provide the church with an emotional and meditative exercise of the passion story.
Hillier and his Copenhagen players are born to this music, almost intuitively knowing how to perform it while not stripping it of its liturgical rightness and place. All the singers, with few exceptions, double in the “roles” as well, and each is highly trained and skilled in the style of the time. The sound is perfectly gauged to Hillier’s complex performance requirements, and this is a fitting conclusion to a memorable series.