Review By Mark Sealey,MusicWeb International,June 2009
It’s hard to listen to, think about, understand the (Baroque) passion without reference to the two extant examples by Bach. But we must: the Luke Passion by Schütz (1585–1672, from the generation before Bach, and completed less than 20 years before Bach’s birth) is very different from the latter’s St Matthew (BWV 244) and St John (BWV 245) Passions. To appreciate Schütz’s conception of the form we really need to set aside all preconceptions about the sound of such music. After all, it was an established ‘genre’ long before Bach. Though we must remember the liturgical and musical purposes of the genre: the practice of narrating the events immediately before the crucifixion of Christ dates from at least the
Writing for the Dresden court at the time, Schütz’s Luke Passion respects the practice there of silencing instruments during Holy Week. That may be the first surprise on listening to this CD…no instruments. Just two soloists and the dozen-strong Ars Nova Copenhagen choir, half of whom also take minor solo roles—Poul Emborg (tenor) the Petrus for example.The Evangelist is persuasively sung by Johann Linderoth (tenor) in a kind of chant close to the rhythms and intonations of speech. Unlike Bach’s, this Passion tightly focuses all our attention on the story rather than on embellished reflection. There is commentary in the Schütz work; but it’s much more limited: very short ensembles at the start and end. The rest is all from the Gospel itself.This has the effect not so much of neutralising the impact as might be expected; but of heightening it. When Pilate finally utters in response to the goading: “Ich finde keine Ursache an diesem Menschen” (I can find no fault with this man), it has tremendous effect. Nor is this due to our knowing how well Schütz did write richer textures…his Sieben Worte unsers lieben Erlösers (SWV 478) is in the very same vein, for example. It’s because the tension has been built up from the opening of the work by carefully-articulated, precisely-phrased and elegantly-formed singing. Similarly, the fact that roles are assigned to performers, who sing them in character, confers drama on our experience. It’s nothing like Bach, though; while associating character with singer, there is little interaction as such. Schütz also uses distinctions of tessitura and dominant reciting note to indicate character.
To overlay further focus on the unfolding of the story, Hillier and his soloists have insisted on heightened attention to every syllable. One can imagine the impact of the Luke Passion as akin to a barely-furnished stage with single spotlights on a minimum of plainly-dressed singers, grouped together—as opposed to a relaxed string quartet, fully lit and spreading to occupy an indeterminate space. This also has the effect of throwing those few brief moments when the presence of others (the disciples, the crowd) is heard into even greater relief: for a moment there is a change in atmosphere. A brief interjection reminds us of the import of the rest of the narrative. As a result there is rarely a moment to relax. Everyone is concentrating fully on the events. Hillier and his performers have achieved—and maintain—this hothouse atmosphere extremely well. However familiar Schütz’ contemporary audiences—or we—may be with the story, the development and pressure never let up. Emotion comes from within, and does not need to be imposed by otherwise unnecessary singing style. Not that Linderoth or Jacob Bloch Jespersen (bass baritone, Jesus), are in any way flat or lacklustre. Their rounded and persistently-pointed articulation and attachment to such restricted melody is necessary. They are more than up to the attention which their every syllable, sound and sentence draw. In other words, they really make (and not break) this performance and recording.
Lasting well under an hour, this CD is nicely presented with a useful introductory essay and the text in German and English. The acoustic is immediate, vibrant and appropriately resonant. So set aside preconceptions and listen to Schütz’ direct, honest, calm and altogether tidily persuasive Passion.