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Heinrich Schütz composed
three collections of Symphoniae Sacrae, or settings of passages of sacred
scriptures: The first was issued in 1629, this second one in 1647, and the
third in 1650. Both the first and second sets were products of sojourns in
foreign climes, away from the war-ravaged Dresden ducal court. The first
emerged from Schütz’s second stay in Venice in 1628–29 (the first being his
studies under Giovanni Gabrieli from 1609–12), where he met and studied with
Monteverdi; the second mostly stemmed from his second stay at the royal
court in Copenhagen in 1642–44 (the first was from 1633–35) and was
dedicated to the Crown Prince of Denmark. In contrast to the choral ensemble
settings of the third set, the first two consist entirely of miniatures for
one to four voices (only one to three in the second set) with chamber
instrumental accompaniments. Both sets, particularly the second, pioneered a
merging of the new Italian Baroque stile concitato with the older German
sacred motet tradition, and in contrast to the early and elaborate Psalmen
Davids were composed for the much reduced musical forces imposed by the
privations attendant upon the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648.
This is the fifth complete recording of the second set. The premiere recording was by the Capella Fidicina under Hans Grüss in 1988 (Capriccio), with countertenor Jochen Kowalski and tenor Peter Schreier as headline soloists. After that followed versions by the Purcell Quartet and a starry line-up of British early music soloists (including Emma Kirkby, James Bowman, Nigel Rogers, and Stephen Varcoe) in 1994 (Chaconne); La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata with soloists (including Harry van der Kamp) directed by Roland Wilson in 1995 (Sony Vivarte); and the Cappella Augustana with soloists (again including van der Kamp) led by Matteo Messori in 2003 (Brilliant). Colleague J. F. Weber reviewed all of these successively in 12:4, 18:5, 21:1, and 30:5, respectively. He originally highly applauded the Capriccio set, but in subsequent reviews noted that the inclusion of a few additional pieces, requiring three partially filled discs instead of two well-filled ones, put it at a considerable disadvantage in price compared to succeeding versions. He expressed some dissatisfaction with the Chaconne release due to its unvaried use of violins only for the instrumental accompaniments, but placed the Sony Vivarte issue on the same plane of excellence as Capriccio. He also commended the Brilliant Classics set without making a direct comparison to its predecessors, though reading between the lines I would infer that Grüss and Wilson remain his preferred versions. My own ranking of these four sets, based primarily on the quality of the vocal soloists, would place Wilson as a clear first, followed by Messori and then the Chaconne set, with Grüss a distant fourth. While I agree with Weber that the Chaconne set’s unvaried instrumental accompaniment is less desirable than the more colorful ones of its competitors, I am less concerned by that than its less ingratiating alto and tenors, whereas Wilson’s soloists are faultless. (Messori also falls somewhat shy in the tenor department, but he has a much better alto; Grüss’s soloists are solid but relatively substandard.)
That brings us to this new version. Both Weber and I have been reviewing all of the releases in the ongoing complete Carus edition of Schütz’s works; we have both been highly enthusiastic, though I have placed a few of its entries as strong seconds to previous versions more often than my colleague. I suspect that will be the case here as well. There are a couple of slight idiosyncrasies here. The first two numbers, SWV 341 and 342, are given to a tenor rather than the stipulated soprano; SWV 341 opens with a brief improvised instrumental riff that doesn’t match what immediately follows, and tenor Tobias Mäthger in SWV 341 (his only solo appearance here) has a certain grittiness to his voice that puts me a bit off. After this slightly rocky start, however, matters for the most part go swimmingly. The soloists are all vocally attractive, technically secure, and interpretively stylish, though alto David Erler’s timbre is less pleasant than that of David Cordier for Wilson, and it is no shame to bass Felix Schwandtke to say that he cannot quite match the nonpareil van der Kamp. The instrumental ensemble, comprising two violins, three cornetts, two recorders, and three trombones, plus a dulcian, theorbo, organ, and percussion (the last-named adding a delightful, almost Spanish flavor to SWV 356), plays superbly under Rademann’s direction. As always, Carus provides warm, spacious, clear recorded sound and a model booklet with detailed notes, artist bios with photos, and complete German-English texts. The works are presented in SWV catalog order number, as is also done in the Chaconne and Brilliant sets, whereas the Capriccio and Sony Vivarte sets scramble the order to vary the vocal presentation (in contrast to my breakfast eggs, I prefer unscrambled here).
With this release, the outstanding Carus edition lacks only a complete Becker Psalter (one disc of that has appeared so far) and some isolated pieces that are not members of the composer’s larger collections. While I would still give the palm here to Wilson, this Carus recording is once again a very close second—so close as to mandate its acquisition by anyone who treasures the music of the genius rightly styled Musicus excellentissimus. Emphatically recommended.
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