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Schütz - the ‘Final Work’

Heinrich Schütz: Opus ultimum – Schwanengesang (Psalm 100, Psalm 119, Deutsches Magnificat – SWV 482-494). Collegium Vocale Gent; Concerto Palatino. Philippe Herreweghe, director. Artistic director: Andreas Neubronner; sound engineer: Markus Heiland. Two compact discs, 1 h 28 min, recorded 04/2005, Chapelle de l’ancien Séminaire (Vlerick Management School), Gent. Harmonia Mundi HMC 901895.96

The title of this CD states the programme: it contains Heinrich Schütz’s ‘Opus ultimum’ – his final work. Indeed, according to Peter Wollny in his notes to this recording, Schütz consciously wrote his setting of Psalm 119 as his last piece; the eleven motets for double choir and accompaniment that make up the Psalm (SWV 482-492) were planned as his musical legacy. In the last years of his life Schütz had also written settings of Psalm 100 (SWV 493) and the Magnificat, both in German (SWV 494) and for the same scoring. Wollny points out that Schütz’s contemporaries already knew the collection of these three pieces as the composer’s ‘Schwanengesang’ (Swansong). The term ‘Schwanengesang’ – derived from the Greek mythology, base on the idea that swans sing a last, beautiful song just before they die – is still used to denote an artist’s last work.

Schütz had the voice parts of the collection written out in fair copies with printed title pages and dedicated the collection to his master, the Elector Johann Georg II of Saxony. However, it appears that the work was never performed for the Elector. This is not surprising: Schütz had written in an old-fashioned, archaic style; this is music with a “severe, timeless character” as Wollny concludes in a more sympathetic description. The music of the ‘Schwanengesang’ fell into oblivion; six of the nine part books were discovered in 1900, only to disappear again for another 70 years. In the mid 1970s the rediscovery of these parts together with the newly found organ part-book made a modern edition possible (the soprano and tenor of the second choir were reconstructed). Beginning in 1985, the 400th anniversary of Schütz’s birth, the ‘Schwanengesang’ was performed in concerts and became available in recordings.

Today (2007) there are several recordings of this music. However, Herreweghe’s new recording seemed to be a welcome edition to the catalogue. Over the last decade, Herreweghe has produced a number of Schütz recordings; he is an expert in the music of this period, and this is apparent in every bar. Herreweghe and his group use performing material prepared by Wolfram Steude (vocal parts) and Norbert Schuster (instrumental parts). Whereas Schütz’s part-books provide only for simple organ accompaniment, the work includes here some richer instrumental accompaniment, following the custom of the time. In the larger choruses trombones and a cornet are occasionally added (with some improvised ornaments), and the basso continuo organ is supported by four viole da gamba, a lute and a violone. The instruments make a perfect addition to the two choirs, never being obtrusive, but always providing a fine harmonic background for the singers to build on.

When in 1997 the Australian group ‘The Song Company’ under Roland Peelman produced its recording of the ‘Schwanengesang’, they performed it with simple organ accompaniment. The recording was highly acclaimed for the immaculate singing and outstanding interpretation; however, by omitting such an integral part of Schütz’s music as the instrumental accompaniment usual at his time, the listener is deprived of half the pleasure!

Herrweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent is precise in its singing. Their diction is very clear (from the list of names of the singers given in the booklet it would appear that they are not all native German speakers); only very occasionally do they appear to be a bit too enthusiastic about their consonants, for instance when they sing ‘Du schiltest die Stolzen’ (Thou hast rebuked the proud) in the second motet, or the similar ‘Ach, dass die Stolzen müssen zuschanden werden’ (Let the proud be ashamed) in the fifth. The different vocal parts are generally well-balanced and complement each other to a full, round sound. Occasionally, however, the top notes of the sopranos are a bit sharp, for instance near the beginning of the first of the Psalm 119 motets (CD 1, 1) or in the middle of the Magnificat (CD 2, 6).

This may have been caused by a recording problem or some difficulties during the mixing. However, it draws attention to an ongoing debate: the use of women’s voices in Baroque sacred music – especially if they date from the early Baroque period – is a point which is much argued about. The 1996 recording of the ‘Schwanengesang’ by the Hilliard Ensemble under Heinz Hennig used trebles from the Knabenchor Hannover in the top lines, and indeed, the boys produce a sweeter, more ‘sparkling’ and more ‘authentic’ sound than the sopranos of the Collegium Vocale (or at least what we think is ‘authentic’). Nevertheless, Herreweghe is a conductor of such quality that his interpretation sounds far more interesting and inspired than most of the earlier recordings.

There is, however, one bigger point of critique to make about this recording. In his notes, Wollny quotes Schütz as having recommended that the pieces recorded on this CD be performed “in the two choir lofts erected across from each other above the altar”. Thus Schütz clearly thought of polychoral singing with all the effects possible by locating the choirs in different places in the church. This technique, derived from the Venetian cori spezzati, was very popular in early seventeenth century Germany (one just needs to think of Michael Prätorius). It is to be regretted that the double choir arrangement is not audible in Herreweghe’s recording – it simply sounds as though he had all the performers in one group. This results in Schütz’s music not sounding like works for double choir, i.e. for two independent choirs, but merely for one eight-part choir.

The massed sound certainly takes away one of the most attractive sides of this music and renders it slightly monotonic, and, indeed, tiring. At the same time, one may wonder if Herreweghe really meant to keep dynamic changes to a minimum. In the end one is tempted to think that on this CD something must have gone wrong with the recording technique. This would be surprising, as Harmonia Mundi is well-known for the excellent sound quality of many of its recordings. Given the quality of the performers this CD should have been better than it is. It still has many strong points: a great composer’s masterpiece in an inspired, intelligent performance; however, given all the draw-backs in the sound, one may perhaps want to wait for an improved re-issue.

Este artículo fue publicado el 28/12/2007


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Philippe Herreweghe