in: Reviews

February 7, 2011

Buried Well, Musically by Schola Cantorum

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An ambitious program centered on the Musikalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz was presented by the Schola Cantorum of Boston, directed by Frederick Jodry, on Friday evening, February 4th, at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston. The program was repeated Saturday evening at St. Joseph’s Church in Providence and on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline. This is a review of Friday’s performance.

As it happens, this was the second performance in the Boston area this season of the Musikalische Exequien, a multi-movement work composed for the 1636 Lutheran funeral of Heinrich Posthumus of Reuss-Gera. a small German principality. (For further historical details, see this reviewer’s account of the October 23rd concert by Musica Sacra here.) Born just a hundred years before J. S. Bach, Schütz was sent to Venice by his Protestant German patrons to study the latest madrigal and polychoral techniques with Giovanni Gabrieli.  But the expressive vitality of his music reflects primarily an extraordinary sensitivity to the declamatory rhythms of German speech, ornamented with rhetorical flourishes that enhance the meaning of the Biblical texts. Leading from a small continuo organ, Jodry brought out the expressive potential of the solos, duets, and trios alternating with six-voice cappella sections in the opening German Missa (corresponding to the Kyrie and Gloria of the Latin Mass). For the second movement, “Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe,” two four-voice choirs faced each other in a motet evoking the Venetian polychoral style. In the third and final movement, a setting of the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc dimittis), two sopranos and a bass representing seraphim were placed in the back of the church along with theorbo player Ryaan Ahmed, heavenly commentators on the text sung by the choir.

The first part of the program presented a variety of shorter funeral pieces, in which Jodry joined the choir as bass singer. The Funeral Ikos by the English composer John Tavener, born in 1944 (not to be confused with John Taverner, born ca. 1490) uses text from the Greek Orthodox Order for the Burial of Dead Priests. Chant-like passages based on Byzantine Church modes alternated with choral passages in spare harmony, often coalescing in unison at phrase endings. The transparent texture of this meditative work contrasted with the densely imitative High Renaissance polyphony of Nicolas Gombert’s six-voice motet on David’s lament for his son Absalom, with its mournful refrain “O fili mi” (O my son). In J. S. Bach’s funeral motet for eight-voice double choir, Komm, Jesu, komm, the Schola singers’ precise German diction gave full play to the many nuances of text expression.

Three anthems by Henry Purcell, based on texts from the Burial Service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, were set for four-voice choir with continuo accompaniment. In a remarkable passage in the second anthem, chromatic harmonies on the words “the bitter pains of eternal death” illustrated Purcell’s individual approach to this emotional text. Finally, the American choral composer Edwin Fissinger’s “Lux aeterna” from the Mass for the Dead featured soprano Margot Rood’s exquisite singing, floating above block harmonies in the choir.

In this rich and varied program, Jodry and the Schola Cantorum demonstrated their mastery of a number of choral styles from the sixteenth through the twentieth century, all of them indebted in one way or another to the ideals of Renaissance polyphony. The ensemble marks its twenty-fifth anniversary this season and will celebrate with a performance of Dufay’s Missa Ecce ancilla Domini along with anthems by Lasso, Tallis, and Victoria at the Rhode Island School of Design on April 9th, honoring the re-opening of the museum’s Renaissance galleries. The program will be repeated in Boston on April 15 at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline and on April 16t at St. John the Evangelist, Beacon Hill.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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