Friday 4 August 2017

From the engaging to the intense: Schütz and Bach at the Proms

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Heinrich Schütz, JS Bach; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 02 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Schütz motets and Bach cantatas in a programme celebrating the Reformation

The late night prom on Wednesday 2 August 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with music by two composers associated with the Lutheran church in North German, Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach.

John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists performed Schütz's Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41, Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43 and Danket dem Herren, denn er is freundlich, SWV 45, and Bach's Cantata No.79 'Gott der Herr is Sonn und Schild' and Cantata No.80 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott' at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Promenade Concerts.

Schütz's music for the Protestant court in Dresden seems to resist being allocated to particular roles in the Lutheran liturgy, though some of the items in his Psalmen Davids (1619) seem to have been used in the celebrations of the Reformation Centenary in 1617, a huge event where Schütz's motets were performed by 40 singers and instrumentalists plus 18 trumpeters and two timpanists. The three Schütz pieces in the programme are all linked to this event. For the pieces, Schütz seems to have combined the Venetian poly-choral style (Schütz spent three years in Venice studying with Giovanni Gabrieli) with the Lutheran texts.

Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41 alternated sections sung by a single choir (with continuo) with sections for four choirs, with two or the choirs mixing voices and instruments (cornets and sackbuts). In Venetian style, the choirs were all unequal and Schütz increased the sense of contrast by having the single choir singing in duple metre, whilst the multiple choir sections were in triple metre. The result was rather striking and surprisingly endearing. John Eliot Gardiner used quite large forces, but drew quite an intimate performance particularly in the single choir passages.

 Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43 used three differently constituted choirs, one of singers accompanied by strings, a high choir of sopranos and cornets plus a baritone, a low choir of trombones and low male voices plus an alto. In allocating his quite large scale forces, John Eliot Gardiner had created the three choirs of different sizes as well, which increased the sense of contrast. So we had contrasts of timbres between the choirs, but also contrasts in the textures of the musical material, with music being thrown from choir to choir, and magical sounds including the high sopranos and cornets.

The final Schütz piece was Danket dem Herren, denn er is freundlich, SWV 45, this time using three choirs (again mixing voices, cornets, sackbuts and strings), plus a group of trumpets. The piece varied from the serious grandness of the choral texture with trumpets, to the intimacy of a vocal quartet. So there were contrasts in the sizes of the groups, contrasts in textures and in the rhythms. One fascinating feature was the insistence of the repetition of the refrain which occurs 40 times in all. Despite the grandness, there was also a vivacious element to the word setting, with a lively variety of rhythms to the word setting.

The Schütz pieces formed a striking contrast to the Bach, written 100 years later. Schütz's settings use a small amount of Lutheran liturgical input such as chorales, whereas the chorale was at the centre of Bach's cantatas and the set he wrote in 1724-25 used chorales in each of the movements. Both of the cantatas performed were written to be performed on the Feast of the Reformation, and what strikes you is the way Bach combined the familiar chorale melodies with musical textures of enormous complexity.

Cantata no. 79, 'Gott der Herr is Sonn und Schild' dates from 1725, and uses oboes, flutes and quite spectacularly two horns. The opening chorus was wonderfully festive, with busy textures with high horns, alternating with trenchant statements of the chorale. This was a large scale and complex piece, but did raise one issue which applied to both the performances of the Bach cantatas; could we hear the oboes in the tutti passages? With a large choir and large body of strings, somehow the oboes did not always register (though we heard some stunning solo moments) and you wondered whether their numbers ought to have been strengthened.

The alto aria showcased not only Reginald Mobley's lovely soft-grained counter-tenor voice, but also Leo Duarte's rather spectacular oboe playing. The second chorale was rather more straightforward, but still with some spectacular horn playing over the top. Bass Robert Davies made the words count in the recitative, which led into his duet with soprano Amy Carson. Despite words like 'God, ah God, forsake they people nevermore!' the accompaniment was rather perky with a lively bass line. The final chorale was the most straightforward.

Cantata no. 80 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott' has quite a long history, starting out in Weimar in 1716. being re-worked in the 1720s and having a final version in 1735. There were no flutes and not horns, but three trumpets, and a trombone. For the opening chorus, the elaborate contrapuntal texture from chorus and strings had the chorale melody blasted out over it by the trumpets and trombone, with this latter producing some wonderful farty low notes. The soprano and bass duet (Miriam Allan and Robert Davies) was in fact a rather busy bass aria (with some impressive passagework from Davies) alternating with an elaborated version of the chorale performed in duet by Allen and oboist Leo Duarte, creating a remarkably striking texture. Robert Davies' recitative moved interestingly from pure recitative to arioso. Miriam Allan, in the following aria, sang with a lovely clear focussed line, and confident tone and words. The next chorale combined strings and trumpets in triple time with a remarkably trenchant chorale . Hugo Hymas's strong and confident recitative, led to another duet, this time between alto Reginald Mobley and Hugo Hymas, but the addition of solo violin (Kati Debretzeni) and oboe da caccia (Leo Duarte) turned it into something of a double duet, a lovely piece with the voices and instruments intertwining. The final chorale was relatively straightforward, but with rich harmonies.

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