If a primary aim of a major issue celebrating a composer's tercentenary is—as it must be—to reveal the extent of his genius, Archive have triumphantly succeeded with this set. The name of Schütz, not so long ago generally classed simply as a predecessor of Bach, is still only gradually becoming accepted by the musical public at large as belonging to the same circle of the elect; but with nine major works and several smaller ones already in the gramophone catalogues (even if not all the performances are ideal) his greatness is now more easily recognisable. The present recording of the complete Psalmen Davids of 1619—the magnificent collection he wrote in his early thirties after his appointment as musical director to the Elector ofRead more Saxony—represents a landmark. In the Psalms Schütz applied to German church music the polychoral tradition he had learned in Venice from his master Giovanni Gabrielian explicit imitation of whose canzone Lieto godea forms the doxology of Psalm No. 111. From two to four vocal and instrumental choirs of varying sizes, sometimes homogeneous, sometimes mixed, blend and contrast in ever-changing ways to form dramatic settings of opulent sonority and splendour, always closely following the sense and rhythm of the text (of the clear articulation of which Schütz made a special point in his Preface, stressing also that speeds should not be excessive if the result were not to be "a battle of flies"). The diversity and virtuosity of his technique is astonishing, and the combination of polyphony, chordal writing and choral stile recitativo to form integrated wholes is quite masterly.
The double choir of voices with continuo which forms the basis of Schutz's forces (to which are variously added instrumental Capellen of brass or strings, or an extra group of singers either solo or tutti) obviously bears the main weight of the performance, and it is therefore gratifying to be able to report that the singing of the Regensburg Domspatzen is a constant delight. The boys are sweet-voiced and nearly always dead in tune (only in the final cadence of Psalm No. 100 are they a little uneasy); the soloists include a boy alto who goes down to low F; the treatment of the text, in intensity of meaning (e.g. in the bitterness of Psalm No. 137) as well as sheer intelligibility, is exemplary, with an appropriate but not exaggerated amount of stress on important words (note for example, in Psalm No. 110, the words "zuschmeissen"—"wound"—or "er wird grosse Schlacht tun"—"he shall fight great battles") and exceptional finesse in shading-off unimportant syllables. Under Hanns-Martin Schneidt's intelligent and vital direction all the phrasing is sensitive and clean, the dynamics finely nuanced, the tone-colour varied from light to beatific (Psalm No. 84) or majestic, the rhythm springy and the tempo flexible. Only for the last ten of these 26 pieces did Schütz specify the instrumentation, but in his Preface he allowed "discerning directors" discretion in the matter of layout generally; and in this recording, besides Capellen of cometti (there is some particularly spectacular playing in Psalm No. 150, which contains many solo instrumental lines, and some effective decoration in Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren), natural trumpets, small-bore trombones, flutes, violins and gambas, various instruments at times support the voices; and the continuo section is large and well diversified.
The kaleidoscopic changes of colour in the Psalms make for continuous interest to the ear: 1st nicht Ephraim starts with two 4-part choirs of mixed voices and instruments, and develops into four 4-part choirs; and Psalm No. 115 is particularly complex in layout. But the moments which catch the breath are often the massive tuttis (usually on a dramatic change of chord) which underline some specially significant words—the utterances of the Lord in Psalm No. 110, for example, or "All that hath breath" in Psalm No. 150—or thrilling brass entries like the final "Danket dem Gott" in the first setting of Psalm No. 136, after the protracted build-up on the repeated refrain "for his mercy endureth for ever". There is a great deal of graphically illustrative word-setting (of which the choir makes the most) on things like "lachen" ("laugh") or "Zittem" ("trembling") in Psalm 2, "harre" ("wait") in Psalm No. 130, "the sea shall rage" in Psalm No. 98, or (enchantingly) "babes and sucklings" in Psalm No. 8; and in three places—in Psalm No. 23 and in both settings of Psalm No. 128—Schütz depicts "fear" by breaking the syllables of the word. Sometimes certain phrases catch his fancy and lead to more extended treatment by themselves—each couplet in Die mit Tränen seen, for example, or more subtly to emphasise meaning, as in "the truth of the Lord endureth for ever" in Jauchzet dem Herren: Psalm No. 100 is set in 'echo' form throughout—which brings into play a different spatial placing in the recording. There is in fact endless interest and profound pleasure to be found in this fine set, and it is much to be hoped that the public's response will reward Archive for their enterprise.
-- Gramophone [10/1972, reviewing the original LP release] Read less