HEINRICH SCHÜTZ (1585-1672), viewed as the greatest German composer before J. S. Bach, has fared well early this year outside London. His St John Passion and Musikalische Exequien (Funeral Music) were performed in York in February at St Michael-le-Belfrey by the York Bach Choir. Then, in March, the imaginative Welsh Camerata staged a most original concert at St Woolos’s Cathedral, Newport, and again at St John’s, Canton, in Cardiff, pairing Schütz (the same funeral setting) with two vivid cantatas by Dietrich Buxtehude.
This month, the St Albans-based Carillon Chamber Choir gave two performances of Schütz’s St Matthew Passion, at St John’s, Harpenden, and St Mary’s, Old Welwyn. The conductor was the experienced David Ireson, and it was a gripping performance that he inspired here, seeking to bridge the gap between a concert and the liturgy.
A devout Christian, Schütz was one of the last composers to compose modally; but much of his music has a strong sense of tonality. He studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, and possibly later with Monteverdi, and makes much use of imitation, sometimes variedly spaced and engaging varying or unexpected intervals. He spent more than half a century as court composer to the Elector of Saxony, initially in the period defined by the Thirty Years War (1618-48). He wrote no instrumental music, but devised the first German Opera, Dafne, now, sadly, destroyed.
One of the fascinating things about Schütz’s sacred output is the apparent affinity with plainsong; yet much of what here might appear to be plainchant is composed by him. This St Matthew Passion dates from 1666. Most of his Passion music dates from the last period of his life.
The part that most clearly exemplifies the natural flow of Schütz’s lines is the Evangelist’s. Often the choruses were forceful and gripping, but the drama was best captured here with marvellous fluency by Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor with the former Hilliard Ensemble, whose singing of the Evangelist enriched this performance no end. The perfect clarity of his enunciation, and the shifts in musical character which he introduced, his unerring dramatic sense, the way he leaned into a phrase, his dynamics, and his exquisite, thought-through touches of rubato, were a lesson in themselves.
Christ was sung by the bass Will Houghton, who brought apt warmth, solemnity, and clear nobility to the part, as well as tenderness towards the sleeping disciples. But many other solos were taken by the choir: for instance, Peter and his denials, two spirited questioners (tenor and soprano), and a finely commanding bass Caiaphas.
Arguably, among the best were the two false witnesses; a richly expressive, hesitant Pontius Pilate — sung by Iain Robinson; and a movingly guilt-ridden Judas (John Webb, gamely singing at countertenor pitch and generating a striking poignancy, not least when spurning his 30 pieces of silver).
Moreover, although mostly energised in Schütz’s writing (as in their outrage at the anointing at Bethany), the chorus, spot-on together and singing with real spirit, also produced a variety of moods, including tenderness in the opening chorale. They showed an expertly rehearsed discipline in numerous passages.
Towards the end, to dazzling effect, Schütz shifts to the major, opening the door for his notable final chorus, “Truly, this man was the Son of God”.
The impact of many of the choruses, indeed the whole of the conductor’s electrifying reading and patent communication with his singers (this was not the choir’s first outing in music by Schütz), was wonderfully reinforced by the blue cupola at the east end of St John’s, Harpenden, which projected and almost amplified the voices.