Saturday, 11 April 2009

Gott sei dank for Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz was born a hundred years before JS Bach. He came into a world where people could still remember Martin Luther: the Reformation was still raw and real. Schütz's music inhabits an altogether tougher world. His Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Auferstehung unser Herrn Jesus Christus (1623) occupies a very special place in my heart.

first time I heard it, broadcast from the composer's birthplace, Dresden, it was like a kind of epiphany. I can't explain it, but the music shone out like a blast of light, illuminating everything with a kind of pure spiritual clarity. I don't follow Schütz's religion yet it moved me in a way I've never been able to rationalize. It's so uplifting. In my running days I'd jog along listening to it as I ran. after an hour I was pretty whacked but then the glorious finale would kick in. Gott sei dank! sings the choir, in multiple harmonies, while the tenor soars above all Victoria! Victoria!, and the chorus joins in splendidly woven polyphony. No matter how tired I was, when that finale came on, suddenly I'd speed up before collapsing in joyous ecstasy.

Schütz's Resurrection Story is written for simple forces, mainly an interplay between the Evangelist and choir of youthful voices, supported by a cache of different violas de gambe and positive organ. Speaking about Bible-based music, a friend of mine recently said "We all know the story". What is so moving about Schütz's version is that it feels vivid, fresh, immediate. Until very recently, the Bible had been in Latin, not in German. It must still have felt shocking to hear Jesus depicted by a group of young male voices, their voices weaving like shimmering light. We're so used to Bach now, that we take Evangelists for granted. But Schütz's Evangelist tells the story in clear, direct terms, as if he's recounting something amazing happening right before his eyes.

That's why I love the Peter Schreier recording above all others : He sounds genuinely excited, for nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Just days before, Jesus's followers had seen him die on the cross. Now suddenly he appears in their midst, speaks and even shares a meal with them. No wonder they can't believe their eyes. So Jesus sings "Sehet meine Hände und meine Füsse! Ich bin er selbst!" The voices bounce up and down with joy. Schreier's Evangelist creates a glowing aura like glanzende Kleider, around the other parts, for this is a miracle, not something prosaic. This performance is as unblasé as you can imagine.

The recording was made in 1972, in the dark days of the DDR when faith was perhaps as dangerous as it had been in Schütz's time. Even if the performers didn't share the composer's beliefs they knew who he was and what he stood for in early 17th century Dresden. You can hear clips from the whole Schreier recording, on the website, and perhaps elsewhere. One of the male sopranos (singing Jesus and Mary Magdelene) is Olaf Bär, who's now a respected baritone.

Please also reead my post on Mendelssohn's Lobgesang HERE

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