Tuesday 28 December 2021

Full of the joy of Christmas: music by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries

Heinrich Schütz
Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz The Christmas Story; Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Schütz's music for Christmas alongside that of his contemporaries, in an evening full of wonder and joy, vivid colours and amazing musical textures and timbres

We don't hear anything like enough music by Heinrich Schütz, so it was doubly welcome that Arcangelo (artistic director Jonathan Cohen) and Wigmore Hall decided to herald Christmas with a glorious sequence of Heinrich Schütz's music on Friday 23 December 2021. The second half was devoted to Die Weihnachtshistorie (The Christmas Story) whilst the first half was a sequence of Christmas motets by Schütz and Michael Praetorius with instrumental music from Johann Verdanck and Johann Hermann Schein.

A very full Wigmore Hall platform featured singers Miriam Allan and Zoe Brookshaw (sopranos), Alexander Chance (alto), Laurence Kilsby, Nicholas Mulroy, Guy Cutting (tenors), James Newby (baritone), Dingle Yandell and William Gaunt (bass), alongside a proto-orchestra featuring violins, viols, violone, recorders, dulcian (a sort of early bassoon), cornets, trombones, lute, organ and harpsichord.

One of the things to bear in mind about Schütz is that he was long-lived (dying at the age of 87!) and remained musically active into old age so that Die Weihnachtshistorie dates from 1660 when he was 75 (and published four years later), very much the grand old man, yet how vivid, vigorous and imaginative is the music. He had trained in Italy with Giovanni Gabrieli, and whilst his career in Germany involved much music for the Lutheran tradition, his grandest pieces written for the grand court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden (where he worked for the Electors Johann Georg I and his son, Johann Georg II) have the distinctive tang of Italian music.

We began with Hodie Christus natus est SWV456, from 1640-50, featuring six singers and the full band. The result was a complex and glorious noise, full of the sheer joy of the text's message, yet Schütz's treatment of the voices is quite soloistic (rather than as a single choral entity) with textures thinning down to just a couple of voices and continuo, in contrast to the full sound. With recorders, cornets, trombones and a dulcian in the mix as well as violins and viols, this was a very textural sound with Schütz often writing in blocks, using the different sections of the instrumental ensemble as choirs. 

Johann Georg I, Elector of Saxony from 1611 to 1656
Johann Georg I, Elector of Saxony from 1611 to 1656
Johann Vierdanck was one of Schütz's pupils in Dresden, and his Sonata No. 28 was published in 1641. A vivid work with writing for the cornets, trombones, dulcian and organ that had much understated virtuosity, with the players relishing the dark colours and textures.

Michael Praetorius was an older contemporary of Schütz, and also employed in Dresden where his exposure to Italian contemporary music by Gabrieli was a significant influence on him. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern comes from his collection Polyhymnia published in 1619. For five voices and instruments, it began in intimate fashion with just voices and continuo, before gradually adding instruments to eventually create a rich mix of sounds and textures. The individual lines were often virtuosic, creating intricate polyphonic textures but there was a feeling of joyful dance here too.

Johann Hermann Schein also arose from the ranks at the Dresden court, but he was of an older generation. His Banchetoo musicale was published in 1617, a sequence of instrumental dances in suites. We heard two groups of excerpts from the music. First the Intrada a4, a perky, dancing delight for strings, recorders and continuo, and then the Gagliarda and Allemanda from Suite No. 10, moving between the stately and the lively, and full of engaging contrasts between the instruments but always was a vivid feeling that this was music you could really move to.

Schütz's Heute ist Christus der Herr geboren SWV439 dates from the 1630s, at the height of the Thirty Years War when Schütz spent a lot of time away from Dresden (returning to Italy where he may have met Monteverdi, and writing music for a royal wedding in Copenhagen). Dresden's court music was inevitably rather reduced in scale. This piece, based on an earlier Latin one, was for two sopranos and alto, but there was no stinting on elaborate roulades in the vocal lines often with just continuo accompaniment. Throughout there was an unfailing sense of joy.

Michael Praetorius' Terpsichore, published in 1612, was another important collection of dance music. We heard two movements, Ballet and La Bouree, moving from the stately to the catchy, always with vivid details and remarkable variety of timbres.

Schütz's Auf dem Gebirge SWV396 dates from 1650, after the ending of the Thirty Years War, and perhaps there is a hint in its choice of text, the remarkable Old Testament prophecy of Herod's infanticide, here two altos (counter-tenor Alexander Chance and Nicholas Mulroy in high tenor mode) wove intense suspensions and dissonances over dark and sombre instruments (trombones and continuo). Wondrous and striking.

After a further movement, the graceful Padouana from Schein's Banchetto Musicale, we finished the first half with Schütz's Siehe, es erschien der Engel SWV403, also from the 1650s. It sets the text of the angel's intervention sending the Holy Family to Egypt. This was for soprano (Miriam Allan), two violins and continuo but offsetting this with music for eight voices and ensemble. There some vivid contrasts, dazzling cornet writing, and lovely intimate moments for soprano and two violins. Dance and joy never seemed to be far away.

For the second half we moved to Die Weihnachtshistorie written when Schütz was supposedly long-retired but called back to court to provide more music. The centrepiece of the work is the Gospel narration of the nativity, set for tenor (Nicholas Mulroy) and continuo, using Martin Luther's translation of the Bible. Schütz uses vivid Italian recitative here, bringing a far greater sense of colour, movement and dazzle than Bach would in his Passions. To this Schütz adds a choral introduction and conclusion, and eight episodes. These episodes are written in the style of his earlier motets, and each introduces us to a different group of characters from the story with each group characterised by different orchestration. The result is a brilliant summation of Schütz's style, vivid and characterful, using the court resources to their maximum yet telling the story.

So we have a soprano angel (Miriam Allan) joyfully announcing the census to the accompaniment of dazzling viols; busy dancing, joyful angels; characterful shepherds with pastoral recorders and dulcian; tenor and baritone wise men with dulcian and strings, vivid and characterful; four-part male high-priests with sombre and resonant trombones and dulcian; Dingle Yandell as a very vibrant, forceful Herod with dazzling cornets; another soprano angel (Zoe Brookshaw) two busy, vivid episodes. But all this would have been as naught if Nicholas Mulroy had not been so vividly engaging in the (long) recitatives. Singing German so clear you could follow easily, he coloured and shaped, relishing the little flourishes in which he had a fine partner in crime with lutenist Sergio Bucheli.

This is not choral music as we know it, and the performance gave a real sense of the sort of ensemble that would have performed the original, a group of soloists distinguished in their own right, each having a moment in the limelight. The result here was full of joy and wonder, colours, textures and timbres, anchored by that vivid narration. There was also the sense, in the present climate, that we were privileged to be there at all; some planned performers had got marooned in travel hell and there were last minute replacements. Yet all, in the ended, was sheer joy and delight.

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Hymns to the Virgin: the Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival - concert review
  • The Other ErlkingSongs and Ballads of Carl Loewe, from Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman - record review
  • Focused intensity and sheer joyful elan: John Butt and Dunedin Consort perform Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall  - concert review
  • Music and meaning: Handel's Messiah from Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and Britten Sinfonia with conductor David Watkin at the Barbican - concert review
  • Something more raw, that goes back to the origins of the stories: I chat to composer Glen Gabriel about his new album, Norse Mythology - my interview
  • The comfort of the familiar mixed with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar: The Sixteen at Christmas - concert review
  • Poetic imagination: Andri Björn Róbertsson and Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir in songs by Árni Thorsteinson & Robert Schumann - record review
  • Bird Portraits: Edward Cowie's amazing musical exploration of birdlife - record review
  • Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he was just 21, is finally available in a modern recording that enables us to begin to appreciate what we've been missing - record review
  • Celebrating the 300th anniversary of their publication in 1720, Bridget Cunningham records Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites - record review
  • A festive feast of Bach for Christmas: Gabrieli Consort & Players at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Dancing a pas de deux with Tchaikovsky and holidaying in North Africa: rumours swirled around Saint-Saens even before his death - feature
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