Under the general direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann, Carus has embarked on a project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz. This is a significant effort, particularly since Schütz is generally recognized as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach and is viewed by many as being on a par with his contemporary (and teacher) Claudio Monteverdi. The current plan is to complete the recording project by 2017; and, at the end of last month, Carus released its seventh volume, a complete recording of the first volume of Kleine geistliche Konzerte (little sacred concertos).
This collection was published in Leipzig in 1636, after Schütz’ travels (basically to get away from the Thirty Years’ War) to Venice (where he studied with Monteverdi) in 1628 and Copenhagen in 1633. This was Schütz’ Opus 8; and it was followed in 1639 by a second volume. The operative word in the title is “kleine.” These are 24 brief meditations, each a setting of a few verses of Biblical text. (The second volume consists of another 32.) Each utilizes one to four voices with continuo accompaniment.
On this new Carus recording, Ludger Rémy serves as director, also performing on a small organ. For some of the selections he receives continuo support from Stefan Maass (theorbo) and/or Matthias Müller (viols). There are also violin solos provided by Alexander Schneider. The vocalists are sopranos Dorothee Mields and Ulrike Hofbauer, countertenor David Erler, tenors Georg Poplutz and Tobias Mäthger, and basses Andreas Wolf, Cornelius Uhle, and Felix Schwandtke.
Personally, I had my first encounter with these “sacred miniatures” this past summer, when six of them were performed by students of the American Bach Soloists Academy at an Academy-in-Action concert. In many ways they may be appreciated as a bridge between the brief madrigal forms of Monteverdi and the more extended cantata forms of Bach. They also orient the listener to prevailing techniques of musical rhetoric through which melodic lines serve to enhance the understanding of the text being set. On the other hand, one also appreciates that “bridge” function through Schütz’ command of counterpoint and the ways in which he realizes text through multiple interleaving voices.
These individual “concertos” were never intended to be performed as a set. Most likely they were inserted into religious services to provide music for meditating on the Lesson of the day. Thus, there is no reason to criticize either Rémy or the producers for not arranging the tracks in the order in which the concertos were first published. Each of these was intended as a “stand-alone” composition. Still, there is much to be gained in listening to the recording in its entirety in a single sitting. At the very least, one is likely to emerge with greater sensitivity when listening to Bach’s sacred music.