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Recordings

Heinrich Schütz: Symphoniae Sacrae III
22 Feb 2006

SCHÜTZ: Symphoniae Sacrae III

The tragic ravages of the Thirty Years’ War explicitly shaped the musical output of Heinrich Schütz.

Heinrich Schütz: Symphoniae Sacrae III

Cantus Cölln; Concerto Palatino; Konrad Junghänel (dir.)

Harmonia Mundi HMC901850.51 [CD]

$29.99  Click to buy

His Kleine geistliche Konzerte feature concertos for one or a few solo singers with basso continuo, a move admittedly in keeping with the fashion for solo singing that marked the first part of the seventeenth century, but in this case also a practical necessity, born of the wartime depletion of resources. However, with the Peace of Westphalia and the cessation of fighting in 1648, Schütz was able once again to engage music on a grand scale in Dresden, and this takes published form in the third book of Symphoniae Sacrae (1650). These concertos in part echo the polychoral splendor of his Psalmen Davids of 1619, works that themselves bore the stamp of Schütz’s enthusiastic study in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli. (One of the 1650 concertos, “Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ists,” is, in fact, a work written in 1619 for the wedding of the composer’s brother.) But much of the 1650 collection also explores the concerted interplay of solo singing with virtuosic instrumental passagework. This, too, echoes earlier Venetian influences—Schütz had also studied in Venice with Monteverdi, as the first book of Symphoniae Sacrae attests—and this more modern influence is a clear strand in the 1650 collection.

Thus, this collection that celebrates the return of peace is also one that stylistically celebrates the composer’s Italian roots, both in its grand scale and in its concerted writing. In other ways, the collection seems also interestingly attuned to a sense of music drama. The range of text types is broad: parables, psalms, Gospel exhortations, and dialogues. The dialogues, such as the famous scene of the conversion of St. Paul (“Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?”), the appearance of the angel to the Holy Family, warning them to flee to Egypt (“Siehe, es erschien der Engel”), or the Holy Family’s anxious discovery of the young Jesus in the Temple (“Mein Sohn, warum hast Du uns das getan?”) become in Schütz’s hands engaging dramatic scenes, rich in characterization and generically close to the oratorio.

Konrad Junghänel’s performance with Cantus Cölln and the wind band, Concerto Palatino, is a spirited and stylish account. The best of the singing is found in the rapid passagework, rendered with notable clarity, ease, and ornamental flair. And the purity of treble sound in works like “O süsser Jesu Christ” or “O Jesu süss” is hauntingly memorable. The instrumental playing, especially that of the cornetts and trombones, is generally of two natures, both handled superbly here. Sometimes the winds function as voices, and the shapeliness of phrase and the exquisite blend of Concerto Palatino defy one to find a seam between voice and instrument. (This is most memorably evident in the concerto “Wo der Herr nicht bauet.) In other cases, the winds (and violins, too) display impressive levels of virtuosity, with the cornetts adding an added measure of accomplishment in so deftly scaling the high registers of the instrument.

On occasion one might wish for a less soloistic vocal sound in the tutti sections, particularly in the lower voices, but this is a relatively minor concern in context of the whole. It is also somewhat ironic that this performance directed by one of the great lutenists of the day, eschews lute continuo altogether, in favor of the unvaried use of the organ. A more diverse continuo palette would be a welcome touch, especially in the concertos of a more dramatic nature.

It is easy to perceive the aura of celebration in Schütz’s 1650 collection. With this recording, the high level of performance gives us a reason to celebrate, as well.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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