Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rademann Presents Schütz’ “Becker” Psalm Settings as a Viable Listening Experience

At the end of this coming week, Carus-Verlag will release the fifteenth volume in Hans-Christoph Rademann’s ambitious project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz. The title of the new album is Becker-Psalter; and, as usual, Amazon.com is already processing pre-orders. The performance is by the Dresdner Kammerchor (Dresden chamber choir), led by Rademann, who is the group’s Director, along with what may best be described as ad hoc instrumental accompaniment.

The Editorial Reviews section on the Amazon Web page provides a basic introduction to the content of this new recording; but the story deserves a bit more flesh, particularly since this may be the first time in Rademann’s project that he had to come to grips with just how “complete” he wanted things to be. The Becker Psalter actually has its own Wikipedia page. It is an arrangement of all 150 of the Psalms rendered in rhymed verse by the Leipzig theologian Cornelius Becker. This was a text-only publication with the intention that the Psalms would be sung to well-known Lutheran hymns.

Over the course of his lifetime, Schütz set all 150 of Becker’s settings to original music. He published an initial, but incomplete, collection in 1628, followed by the “complete package” in 1661. That complete edition was then edited by Walter Blankenburg for the sixth volume in the Neue Schütz-Ausgabe, published by Bärenreiter in 1957. Because this publication is now public domain, it is possible to reproduce a page showing a typical setting:

from IMSLP

Note the numbering of the verses with the gap between the third and the eighth. Becker set each Psalm in its entirety, and Schütz probably assumed that each of his settings would be sung to all of the verses.

This clearly makes for a lot of music. The Schütz-Werke-Verseichinis assigns the catalog numbers from 97 to 255, accounting for the fact that a few of the longer Psalms are broken into separate parts. It is thus necessary to draw attention to the final sentence of the Amazon Editorial Review, which describes the recording as “an exceptionally spirited interpretation of a selection [my emphasis] of these unusually unadorned, transparent, folk-like compositions.” To be more accurate, this recording offers twenty of those 150 Psalm settings; but, on the other hand, it appears that each Psalm has been sung with all of its verses.

While this may seem like more thoroughness than one would wish, Rademann has used repetition as an opportunity for innovation. The opening and closing verses are sung by the entire choir with instrumental accompaniment. However, the intervening verses involve different combinations of voices, often solo, as well as variety in that accompaniment, which sometimes is embellished by improvisation. Furthermore, solos do not always involve singing the “melodic” line. When the solo is taken by a bass, he sings the bass line, which has just as much melodic originality as the soprano line does. In other words Rademann has his own methods for “adorning” what would otherwise come across as excessive repetition of “folk-like” devotion.

Nevertheless, it is unclear that this is a recording to be enjoyed by start-to-finish listening. There is almost 75 minutes of music on this CD, and it is hard to imagine that Schütz would have envisaged anyone sitting still for 75 minutes to listen to a series of hymns based on Psalm texts! From that point of view, it is probably advantageous that the “digital age” is one of “sampled” listening. Granted, these samples are unlikely to be embedded in Lutheran (or any other Christian) services; but it will still be the case that this is music best enjoyed through “piecemeal” listening. Should Rademann plan to account for the remaining 130 Psalms in any subsequently recordings? I can give my own answer in a heartbeat: Enough is enough!

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