Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Carus Releases Volume 2 of Schütz “Sacred Concertos”

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past Friday, Carus released the seventeenth volume in Hans-Christoph Rademann’s project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz. The new recording presents the second of the two volumes that Schütz published under the title Kleine geistliche Konzerte (little sacred concertos). The first volume had been released in August of 2013 as the seventh volume in the Carus project. This second volume was published in 1639, three years after the first volume. As in the recording of the first volume, Ludger Rémy conducts from a small organ or virginal, leading an ensemble of vocalists and an instrumental continuo.

The 24 “sacred concertos” in the first volume could be taken as brief meditations, each one setting a few verses of Biblical text in German. The second volume is distinctive from the first in several ways. First of all, it consists of 31 pieces, meaning that the new release consists of two CDs, while the first volume could fit on a single CD. Furthermore, five of those pieces set text in Latin, rather than German. In addition, with the exception of the first two tracks on the first CD, all of the remaining “concertos” are grouped under six ecclesiastical “themes” as follows:
  1. Weihnachten (Christmas): six entries
  2. Der Herr ist mein Hirte (the Lord is my shepherds): four entries
  3. Passion & Ostern (Passion and Easter): four entries
  4. Gottes Lob (praise of God): six entries
  5. Zuversicht & Hoffnung (confidence and hope): five entries
  6. Abschied & Tod (farewell and death): four entries
Note that I keep putting scare quotes around that noun “concertos.” Michael Talbot’s contribution to The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto asserts that the earliest use of the noun referred to music for voices and instruments in which the instruments did something other than merely follow the vocal lines. This would be true of both of the Kleine geistliche Konzerte volumes, but it would be fair to point out that, for all of the pieces in the second volume, the instruments are basically there for continuo support and little else.

For better or worse, I tend to prefer labels that evoke meaningful expectations. Given that Schütz studied with Claudio Monteverdi (while taking refuge from the Thirty Years’ War in Venice), I have no problem approaching these relatively short pieces as madrigals that happen to have sacred texts and instrumental accompaniment. I might even be so bold as to suggest that Monteverdi was a far more influential teacher than his predecessor, Giovanni Gabrieli, has been; but I would not try to argue this point with those whose knowledge of Schütz is far more extensive than my own!

Whatever the historical record may or may not tell us, the operative word for these individuals is definitely the adjective “little,” rather than the noun “concertos.” Where the phrase not so hackneyed, one could easily call each of the selections “short and sweet.” Put another way, each composition is a meditation on a short Biblical text; and the duration of the meditation is consistent with that of the text itself. From a different perspective, those who enjoy listening to a recording that traverses the entirety of one of Monteverdi’s books of madrigals are likely to be equally pleased with these recordings of the two Kleine geistliche Konzerte volumes.

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