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14.6.07

Herreweghe's Schütz

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Heinrich Schütz, Opus ultimum (Schwanengesang), Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Palatino, Philippe Herreweghe
(released June 12, 2007)


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Schütz, Opus ultimum, Hilliard Ensemble et al.
(1985)
The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Harmonia Mundi has recognized Herreweghe's contribution to music with a dual release embracing the two sides of his musical personality: the early Baroque in this Schütz 2-CD set and the Romantic in a new CD of Schumann symphonies, as well as a retrospective 2-CD/1-DVD set (reviews forthcoming). The fabled Opus ultimum -- Schütz's final work, a set of 11 motets on the text of Psalm 118 (Beati immaculati in via) plus late settings of Psalm 100 and the Magnificat (all in German) -- is offered in a stylistically sensitive performance by Collegium Vocale Gent, recorded in exquisite sound in 2005 in a former seminary chapel in Ghent.

The Hilliard Ensemble's recording, from the 1980s, is the only competition, and it combines voices and instruments, too. As Peter Wollny explains in his informative liner notes, the elderly Schütz offered the Opus ultimum to his Dresden employer in 1671, at the end of a distinguished career, by which point his music had become outdated. Never published, the work survived only by haphazard, rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century in a forgotten manuscript in a small Polish church's archive. In 1930, a continuo part for the motets turned up, which allowed the reconstruction of the two missing partbooks. Looking backward stylistically, Schütz returns to the Venetian polychoral style, composing for two balanced four-part choirs. He did recommend in his instructions that a complement of instruments could perform with the singers. In this recording, there are three singers on each part (two choirs of twelve singers each), whom Herreweghe occasionally reduces to one on a part to provide textural variety. Here it is mostly the continuo instruments that play along (organ, lute, and viol), with occasional doubling contributions by one cornetto and three trombones from the superb Concerto Palatino.

Heinrich Schütz
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Why did Schütz choose Psalm 118? As Joshua Rifkin has shown, Schütz planned his own funeral and chose to have Psalm 118's 54th verse as the motto of the eulogy: carmina erant mihi praecepta tua in domo peregrinationis meae (Your laws have been songs for me in the house of my wandering). Schütz was a Protestant, and he was the Kapellmeister in Dresden before that court reverted to Catholicism. However, at least from his time in Venice, studying with Gabrieli and later with Monteverdi, he must have been familiar with the Divine Office. The singing of Psalm 118, broken up into several sections, each with a different antiphon and psalm tone and its own statement of the Doxology, is suspiciously Catholic, even if the text is in German. In his Regula (Chapter 18), St. Benedict specified that Psalm 118 was to be broken up into sections and sung over the course of the Little Hours (the brief services of Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None) on Sundays and Mondays. Schütz has the first verse of each psalm and the first half of the doxology sung in a Gregorian psalm tone. He even uses the Gregorian psalm tone as a cantus firmus occasionally (for example, in the end of the doxology of the eighth motet).

All throughout his life, Schütz was pioneering ways to adapt the innovations of Italian Catholic church music to a Protestant setting. The "appendix" of the Opus ultimum adds a setting of Psalm 99 (Jubilate Domino omnis terra), apparently performed as early as 1665, and the German text of the Magnificat. This magnificent recording is now the gold standard performance of his last work of genius.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901895.96

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