Thrillingly Theatrical Impressions in the Music of Bach’s Predecessors

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schütz, Buxtehude, Scheidt and Tunder: Welsh Camerata and instrumentalists, Andrew Wilson-Dickson (director). Church of St John the Evangelist, Cardiff, 25.3.2017. (PCG)

SchützMusikalische Exequien
Buxtehude – ‘O Gott wir danken’; Sonata in G, BuxWV217; Ciacona in C minor, BuxWV159; ‘Führwahr, er trug unserer Krankheit’
Scheidt – ‘Hosanna filio David’
Tunder – ‘An Wasserflüssen Babylon’

In November 2015 I reviewed a concert given by the Welsh Camerata in Pontypridd, noting then with disappointment the dismally small size of the audience; but here, on their home ground in Cardiff, I am pleased to report that the same body of singers attracted a substantial number of enthusiastic listeners. Their programme consisted of music written by various composers working in northern Germany in the century before Bach. Beecham notoriously once dismissed Bach with the dismissive phrase “too much counterpoint, and what is worse, Protestant counterpoint” – but in point of fact the music here laid much less emphasis on contrapuntal procedures than on the contrast between groups of soloists and a larger body of ripieno choristers in the manner which anticipated or recalled Purcell’s style in his verse anthems. The extreme degree of virtuosity required from the soloists – deriving in their turn from the Italian models of Gabrieli and Monteverdi – stretched the individual singers to their limits, and it was noticeable that Bach himself required much less in the way of sheer display from his soloists, presumably working with less proficient vocalists than his predecessors could command even in the financially straitened times of the Thirty Years’ War and its aftermath.

Indeed Samuel Schiedt (1587-1654) and Franz Tunder (1614-67), whose two anthems opened each part of this well-planned and contrasted programme, seemed to be the most clearly influenced by Italian models, and the sheer difficulty of the vocal writing certainly seemed to cause nervousness on the part of the solo singers. Similar problems were also evident in Buxtehude’s O Gott wir danken, especially in the fiendishly elaborate writing at the words “Gottes reiche Segenwolk”; although the final Buxtehude setting of Führwahr, er trug unserer Krankheit, bringing together the singers with a substantial body of instrumentalists (two violins, viol consort and organ) with its repetitions of the text brought us very close indeed to the world of Bach. Between the two Buxtehude vocal works we heard a viol quartet in the Sonata in G, where the elaborate ornamentation was handled with great aplomb, and August Guan in the Ciacona where he abandoned the portative organ employed elsewhere for the main church organ, producing thrilling contrasts between the full organ and the swell, which added stereo effects to the acoustic which well accorded with the festive nature of the music itself.

The main item on the programme was, however, the Musikalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). This work, the first setting of a requiem mass in German (drawing texts from Luther and others as well as from the Bible), dates from 1635-6 and clearly showed in places the influence of Monteverdi – whom the composer had met during a trip to Venice in 1628. The solo passages, as befitted the nature of the text, were less sheerly virtuosic than elsewhere in this concert; but the influence of Monteverdi’s madrigal style was evident in places, and his setting of some phrases familiar to us from their use in Handel’s Messiah (“Surely he hath borne our griefs”) showed a greater sensitivity to the meaning of the words than Handel was to display a hundred years later. On the other hand, Schütz was inappropriately jaunty in his treatment of the text “All about us is a vale of tears, fear, want and affliction everywhere” and his accentuation of the word “elend” (emphasis on the second syllable) in the phrase “How wretched is our time on earth” sounded highly unidiomatic. However, the choir smoothly managed the transition into a double choir in “Herr, wenn ich nur dich haben” and the amazing effect of the final Nunc dimittis, with a group of soloists singing different texts and progressively perambulating towards the back of the church, made for a thrillingly theatrical impression. This is one of those pieces of baroque music that really requires live performance to make its proper impact, and it was warmly received by a clearly enraptured audience. Comprehension was assisted too by the commendable provision of full texts and translations, and some delightfully informal spoken introductions from Andrew Wilson-Dickson (interrupted and contradicted by his wife from the ranks of the viols).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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