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Music review: Schütz, Weinachtshistorie, Dunedin Consort (Wigmore Hall)

13 January 2023

Fiona Hook hears the choral music of Schütz and his teachers


RETURNING to the Wigmore Hall for their pre-Christmas concert, the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort gave a programme of 17th-century choral works which stretched from Gabrieli through Monteverdi to Heinrich Schütz. The link was, of course, Venice. Monteverdi succeeded Gabrieli as choirmaster at St Mark’s Basilica, and Schütz studied with both.

The first half consisted mostly of Italian motets. The ten singers, largely products of the English choral tradition, with its careful attention to text and diction, gave the impression of a much larger choir in Gabrieli’s Quem vidistis pastores, its final alleluias bouncing off the ceiling, in contrast with the private prayer in his O Jesu mi dulcissime. In the virtuoso lines of Monteverdi’s Laudate pueri Dominum, the suave but ebullient calls to prayer of the duetting tenors Matthew Long and Christopher Bowen were interspersed with trios projecting a real joy.

Schütz himself was represented, in both Latin and German, with the surprising syncopations of Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten and a full-throated Hodie Christus Natus Est, enriched by a rich, chocolatey continuo line.

The standout work was Alessandro Landi’s Plorabo die ac nocte, with a text from Jeremiah. Each singer declaimed their own lamentation, before a plangent chorus of “Behold and see if there is any sorrow like unto his sorrow,” the choir leaning into the composer’s often stinging dissonances with obvious pleasure.

The evening’s main work was Schütz’s Die Weinachtshistorie (The Christmas Story), directed by John Butt from the harpsichord. Composed in 1660, when the composer was 75, it uses Luther’s translations of Matthew and Luke to tell the story of the nativity and the flight into Egypt. In a foretaste of Bach’s Passions, the work is held together by the Evangelist, clearly and expressively sung by the tenor Nicholas Mulroy, interspersed with eight intermedi, brief episodes sung by the protagonists.

In a reading that was dignified rather than dramatic, Michael Mofidian was a darkly sinister Herod, accompanied by two cornets. Joanne Lunn’s bright soprano Angel could perhaps have put a little more urgency into her call to flee to Egypt, but the choir were wholehearted in their repetitions of “grosse, grosse Freude”. Sensitive playing by two violas balancing single violins and a very large continuo section made for some interesting textures. The woodwind were lovely, a reedy dulcian accompanying the bass Magi, and a cheeky pair of descant recorders dancing along with the shepherds on the way to Bethlehem.

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