Music of Consolation: Bach, Schütz & Schein

Music of Consolation
Bach, Schütz & Schein
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
St Martin-in-the-Fields, 16 June 2022

Two days before their St Martin-in-the-Fields concert, the culmination of a seven-concert European tour, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists performed this programme in the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus on side of the Acropolis hill in Athens. The Romans in Britain buried at least one of their dead on the site of St Martin-in-the-Fields and, if they were around today, might recognize the Corinthian columns of the neo-Renaissance facade of James Gibb’s 1720s church, although they would be surprised at the neo-Gothic spire that he sat on top of it. The music, in contrast, was entirely Baroque from three composers born 100 years apart.

The programme covered most of the span of the German Baroque era in an exploration of the ability of music to comfort the bereaved. Schütz and Schein were pioneers in the development of the German Baroque, bringing influences from Italy, notably, in the case of Schütz, from Giovanni Gabrieli, his teacher in Venice. The opening piece was Schütz’s Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend – or as every entry was sung – Frrrrreue dich,. The first two lines set the scene for John Eliot Gardiner’s interpretation with an enormous fff blast from the 22 singers and the five sackbuteers on the first line and a sotto voce pp for the second line. These extremes of volume and texture, along with other rather romantic gestures such as long-drawn-out cadences continued throughout the concert.

Gardiner’s rather intemperate show of displeasure to the audience for not applauding the first piece quickly enough was a curious intervention. What for Sir Roger Norrington would have been a jovial and friendly gesture was in this case rather threatening. It was not the best introduction to the second Schütz piece, the initially more subdued Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn. Schein was one of Bach’s predessesors in Leipzig. His motet Da Jakob vollendet hatte depicts the dying Jacob and Josephs’s tears at his father’s death, expressed in a touching gently rocking motif. It was Rachel weeping (for her children) in Schütz’s Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehöret, here sung by two impressive guest solo altos, Reginald Mobley and Tim Morgan.

Many of the choir had a chance at solo spots during the extended (c30′) Musikalische Exequien that completed the first half. Beautifully supported by a continuo group of cello, viola da gamba, bass, lute, harp and an almost inaudible organ, the focus of the extended funeral meditation, written as a requiem for Prince Heinrich of Reuss in 1636, was on the varied vocal texture. Perhaps chastened by their telling off after the first piece, the audience, unfortunately, applauded between the three sections. I have frequently written that it is the conductor’s (or performers’) responsibility to tell the audience when to applaud and when not. As had happened in the gaps between the earlier pieces, the extensive stage movements between the three sections didn’t help and should have been avoided.

The rest of the evening was Bach’s at the other end of the Baroque, starting with his moving Actus tragicus, written when he was just 22 years old. For me, the 20-bar opening Sonatina is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written but, despite some excellent playing (from the two recorder players, Rachel Beckett & Catherin Latham, cellist Poppy Walshaw and Kinga Gaborjani & Reiko Ichese, violas da gamba) Gardiner’s interpretation left me cold. It is pretty clear from the source (admittedly not an autograph) that the continuous quaver pulse of the continuo bass and the two violas da gamba should be slurred in fours. But the over-emphasised and detached pulse of the continuo bass seemed to me to be inappropriate and took attention away from the two intertwining recorders.

Although editions divide the Actus tragicus (more correctly, the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) into separate movements, it is really one continuous piece, each section flowing into the other. It was therefore a shame that the choir were not standing during the tiny Sonatina – it rather spoilt the mood when they all stood for the first chorus. Alison Ponsford-Hill’s soprano solo Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, Kommt was exqusite. A nice theatrical touch came when the bass soloist, representing the voice of Christ, was positioned in an elevated position at the back of the choir.

Bach’s O Jesu Christ meins Lebens Licht is a curious work. We know that it was performed at the grave-side ceremony for the Governor of Leipzig in 1740 but may have been used for earlier funerals as a processional. It was perhaps chosen to end this concert to make use of the brass players that had featured in the first half, as in the version performed it is scored is for two litui (generally assumed to be an instrument like a horn, but sounding like more like the two trumpets used here, played by two of the cornett players), one cornett, and three trombones (but here shared between five trombonists). The individual lines of a chorale (sung by the upper voices) are separated by repeated instrumental interludes. The number of verses sung seems to be related to how long the funeral was to last, but here it was limited to two. As in some of the earlier pieces, some curiously unnecessary standing and sitting from the choir, here in between the verses seemingly intended to highlight the brass players behind and above the choir, was a distraction.

The choir was, as would be expected, drilled to perfection and sang beautifully.

Schütz Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend, SWV 453
Schütz Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn, SWV 40
Schein Da Jakob vollendet hatte
Schütz Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehöret, SWV 396
Schütz Musikalische Exequien, SWV 279-281
Bach Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus tragicus), BWV 106
Bach O Jesu Christ meins Lebens Licht, BWV 118