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Peter Loewen
American Record Guide, March 2011

In these recordings of two Passiontide pieces by Heinrich Schütz, I can hear in the Ars Nova Copenhagen the same clean, bright timbre I associate with the Hilliard Ensemble and the Theatre of Voices (Hillier’s ensemble at UC Davis). The diction is crisp, and intonation is spot on.

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James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2010

The three passion settings of Heinrich Schütz, all written in 1666, constitute an intermediate step between the traditional medieval plainchant settings and the elaborate choral passions of Bach. Overall they are closer to the former than the latter, in both structure and forces required for performance. The text consists only of the Gospel narrative without poetic reflections and interjections from other sources; the Evangelist narrator and Jesus dominate, with choral parts limited to the introductory title and the turba exclamations of the throng; the entire text is still sung a cappella without instrumental accompaniment. However, the vocal lines that Schütz writes for the two protagonists are far more varied in inflection than the traditional chant, aimed at amplifying the meaning of the text, while the choral parts leave chant behind altogether for polyphonic part-setting. Finally, the texts are sung in the vernacular instead of Latin. Because of their length and the predominance of solo narrative, which places a premium upon a fluent understanding of German, they remain perhaps more of an acquired taste than Schütz’s many motets and sacred concerti for solo and concerted voices. Certainly they have fewer recordings; the Johannes-Passion may appear the most frequently on disc simply by virtue of being significantly shorter than the settings drawn from Matthew and Luke, and thus both easier to digest and to pair with recordings of other works.

Here, the very logical filler is Schütz’s Die Sieben Worte (The Seven Words), a catena of the Biblical texts of Jesus’ words from the cross. Paradoxically, despite being an earlier composition (prior to 1658), it is closer in style to the later Baroque oratorio. The choral introduction and conclusion set texts of Protestant hymns, and are respectively followed and preceded by instrumental interludes; the voice of Jesus is accompanied by two instruments, anticipating Bach’s technique in the St. Matthew Passion; and the part of the Evangelist is assigned to more than one solo voice, with some lines even sung by a vocal quartet.

This is the third disc of music by Schütz released by Paul Hillier and the Ars Nova Copenhagen on the Dacapo label. J. F. Weber highly praised both previous outings: the Lukas-Passion in Fanfare 33:2, and the combined Weihnachtshistorie and Auferstehungshistorie in 33:5. Comparing the former to the recording by Matteo Messori in the ongoing Heinrich Schütz edition being issued by Brilliant Classics, he preferred “Hillier’s subtler approach” to Messori’s “more forceful interpretation” and also remarked that Hillier’s 1983 recording of the Matthäus-Passion was “notably lighter and more delicate than anything heard before.” (Hillier has now rerecorded this work for Dacapo for future release.) Weber has captured the matter perfectly; transparency and gracefulness are hallmarks of these excellent renditions. While several alternatives—Messori, Kärgl (Preiser), Zobeley (Aeolus), and the one-singer-per-choral-part Freiberger (Christophorus)—are good, I would call this a first choice. (The once venerable but now anachronistic Ehmann on Cantus, and Flämig on Berlin Classics, are markedly inferior.) Also, the recorded acoustic here is preferable; the Messori and Kärgl have a much more reverberant acoustic that makes this intimate music sound rather heavier. The Messori does have a great advantage in price, offering all three passions and the Auferstehungshistorie in a four-CD set for little more than the cost of this CD. Adam Riis and Jakob Bloch Jespersen are both excellent soloists, though the former occasionally shows strain in his top notes; some of the singers of the tiny comprimario roles are of lesser quality than could be desired, but this is an all too common affliction in recordings of Passion settings by many composers. The rendition of Die Sieben Worte is likewise the best I have ever encountered, with singing and instrumental playing of great refinement and expressive intensity. Texts and translations are provided, and cueing points are generous. For all who love the music of Schütz—it is particularly dear to me—this release is highly recommended.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, November 2010

I never cease to be amazed at the range of musical styles that Paul Hillier and his always brilliant choirs can bring delightfully to life. One wonders if there is any period in which the peripatetic English conductor is not in sympathy. As it is, he works primarily from the Baroque backwards and the 20th century forward, but his limited forays into the Classical period (Bortniansky, for instance) and Romantic (the part-songs of Schubert, Schumann, Reger, et al.) show him equally at home. As this may be, the prolific German (and sometimes Danish) early-Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz is well in Hillier’s usual range of operations, and Hillier has been making a series of recordings of this master’s larger-scale liturgical works with his Copenhagen ensemble. This is the third of four projected releases. The first two were warmly welcomed in these pages by Fanfare’s resident reviewer of choral music of this period, J. F. Weber: the Lukas-Passion in 33:2, and the Weihnachtshistorie and Auferstehungshistorie in 33:5. The fourth release will allow Hillier to revisit the Mathæus-Passion, which he recorded for EMI in 1983 with his Hilliard Ensemble. It set the standard for the work—“notably lighter and more delicate than anything heard before,” as Weber aptly puts it—but has not been available for some time.

Both of these works come from Schütz’s later years, when old age, personal tragedy, and the privations of the Thirty Years War had stripped his music of most of its earlier Renaissance and Italian influences, leaving a directness of expression and an emotional austerity that is profoundly moving. Listeners coming to the Johannes-Passion from Bach’s dramatic work will be struck by this relative restraint in Schütz’s version. The setting is unaccompanied, in keeping with the performance expectations of the Dresden court for such works, and there are none of Bach’s solo reflections on the text. Rather, this concise liturgical reading, built on the patterns of the text, inspires by heightening the emotional impact of the passion story itself. A solo tenor, here the sweet-toned, expressive Adam Riis, carries the narrative as the Evangelist, Jesus’ words are sung nobly by bass Jacob Bloch Jesperson, and four members of the 13-voice chorus take the brief solo statements of Peter, Pilate, the maid at the door, and the High Priest’s servant. The crowds are portrayed by the pure-toned chorus with ringing conviction. The closing prayer is heart-breakingly beautiful.

The somewhat earlier Die Sieben Worte is more overtly dramatic, for while the Evangelist’s recitative-like narration, shared among members of an SATB quartet, is again austere, Jesus’ statements are written with more expressive freedom for the tenor soloist. Where the organ accompaniment provides a relatively static bass line for the narration, Schütz’s setting of the words of Jesus is made richer with an independent basso continuo role for the organ and two viola da gamba lines woven into the vocal fabric. The composer does not specify the instrumentation here, or in opening and closing sinfonias played by a consort of five instruments. In previous recordings the sinfonias have been played by a string ensemble, but Hillier has three sackbuts join the viola da gambas. The resulting doleful sound touchingly sets the mood for the crucifixion story it frames. What more can one say? Hillier, soloist Adam Riis, and the vocalists and players from the Ars Nova Copenhagen Schütz project are simply perfect. Add to that the fact that the performance is enhanced by a recording both reverberant and crystal-clear, and it is hard to imagine either work ever being better presented.

Johan van Veen
musica Dei donum, October 2010

This is the second recording in what seems to be a Schütz project by the choir Ars Nova Copenhagen, directed by Paul Hillier. In 2009 the first disc was released which contained the St Luke Passion. This time it is the St John Passion, which is combined with the setting of The [Last] Seven Words of Jesus. They are stylistically very different, although they were both written at the later stage of Schütz’ life. Whereas The Seven [Last] Words is a typically baroque piece, with instruments and basso continuo, the Passion looks back to the renaissance, as it is set for voices without instruments and without support of a basso continuo part.

Die sieben Worte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi begin and end with a tutti section, called Introitus and Conclusio respectively. They use the first and the last stanza from the hymn ‘Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund’, but Schütz—as so often—didn’t use the traditional hymn melody, but rather set them as 5-part motets. There are also two instrumental Symphonias which follow the Introitus and precede the Conclusio. They frame the actual narration from the Bible, in which texts from the four gospels are mixed. Schütz juxtaposes the narrative—given to one voice in various ranges or to four voices—and the direct speech, in which Jesus’ words at the cross are quoted. These are sung by a tenor. The use of instruments and musical and textual repetition are the main tools Schütz uses to express the content of this work.

The St John Passion is a completely different kind of composition. It dates from 1666 and was performed on Good Friday. It begins with an Eingang: “The Passion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as we find it written in the Holy Scripture in the Gospel of Saint John”. The Passion ends with the first stanza of the hymn ‘O hilf Christe, Gottes Sohn’, but Schütz again doesn’t make use of the hymn melody.

The role of the Evangelist is given to a tenor, the role of Jesus to a bass. The turbae are sung by four voices, and the roles of the various characters by a soprano (the damsel), two tenors (Petre, Pilate) and a bass (the servant of the High Priest). Like in his liner notes to the recording of the St Luke Passion the American musicologist Daniel R. Melamed emphasizes that the Passions are different from anything Schütz has otherwise written. He was known for composing music which was strongly influenced by the expressive Italian concertato style. “But the musical types Schütz chose for his passion settings do not allow for this kind of expression either in the solo material or the choruses. The solo singing is modeled on the formulaic recitation of scriptural texts, favoring a melodic line that remains on the same pitch for many words in a row. (…) In the evangelist’s narration, Schütz’s principal tools are the choice of reciting pitch and the arrival on particular notes as resting places (cadence points).”...Adam Riis who sings the role of the Evangelist, has a nice and clear voice, an excellent diction and a good German pronunciation.

David Vickers
Gramophone, August 2010

Poignant and penitential music, spellbindingly and captivatingly sung

We do not know the original circumstances of Schütz’s poignant Die sieben Worte, nor can we be sure exactly what the five instrumental parts were played by; two instruments always accompany the crucified Christ’s seven last remarks, and the remaining three join in the short solemn Symphonia that is played twice, near each end of the work. Most performances adopt the sensible editorial policy of using five string instruments but Paul Hillier has chosen to use only two viola da gambas on the top lines (and in the passages accompanying Jesus), and assigns the three lower parts in the Symphonia to sackbuts. Whether or not this accords with Schütz’s intentions is impossible to know but the resultant sonority is breathtaking. The five singers of Ars Nova Copenhagen blend beautifully in the deeply expressive Introitus and the fantastic quality of consort singing is no more notable than the touching communication of the text. Each singer performs their solo lines insightfully, especially Adam Riis’s Jesus and Jacob Bloch Jespersen’s penitent Thief. Even if admirers of Schütz already have a favourite recording of Die sieben Worte, this spellbinding performance is well worth acquiring.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

Though the German composer, Heinrich Schütz, spent only four years in Copenhagen, Denmark has always laid claim to his being involved in the emergence of music there in the 17th century. It is rather strange that Die Sieben Worte (The Seven Words last words from the Cross), have been included in this projected Schütz series, as there is precious little to establish that the work is by him, only a set of unnamed performing parts having come down to us. The fact that such an important composer would have left the work unpublished is out of character. Whatever its provenance its eleven sections are a most engaging experience, the group of solo voices taking their various roles with a high degree of feeling. There is excellent balance between voices and instruments, while conductor, Paul Hillier, keeps the music moving at an admirable pace. The St John Passion is one of his accepted masterpieces. together with the St. Luke and St. Matthew passions, and is a setting in the traditional format of the Dresden court chapel with the solo voices telling the story, while the chorus musically elaborate. Though substantial in length, it is divided only into eight sections and is unaccompanied. It did not stylistically extend music of the time, but Schütz was a master of using the tonal colours available, his varying of reciting pitch keeping the story musically alive. The performers, with the tenor, Adam Riis, as a most impressive the Evangelist, are well-versed in music of the era, Paul Hillier’s broadly based musical affinities helping to breath new life into the music. Recorded in St.Paul’s, Copenhagen, the sound combines clarity with the resonance of a church acoustic.

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