SCHUTZ: Psalmen Davids (Jeremy Summerly/ Judy Lieber/ Laurence Cummings/ Oxford Camerata) (Naxos: 8.553044)
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Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Schütz's life spanned an era of great instability and upheaval in Central Europe, times of ravaging warfare, economic hardship, and religious division. It is thus all the more astonishing that a musician living under such conditions should lead the way in establishing a national tradition of choral writing, leaving a legacy of composition and teaching whose influence was to persist for many generations after his own.
Venice, the illustrious city which fostered so much innovation in church music in the sixteenth century, was a natural destination for the young Schütz from Saxony to pursue his studies in composition. The formative years of 1609 to 1612 were spent under the supportive tutorship of Giovanni Gabrieli whose practice of writing for divided choirs was enthusiastically adopted by Schütz.
Dresden, with its elegant architecture and cultured court life, was one of many German cities in the seventeenth century whose ruling family took pride in the church music which it could promote, and in 1617 Schütz obtained a permanent position at the court of the Elector, as senior director of the Chapel Royal. With responsibilities for both directing and writing choral and chamber music for services and for secular occasions, and at the head of an élite band of musicians widely acclaimed as the finest in the German Protestant church, Schütz found himself in an environment which favoured lavish display and which thus encouraged his burgeoning creativity.
At a time when the preferred religious texts in Germany for meditation or musical use were of either a devotional or introspective nature, Schütz was attracted to the descriptive and the dramatic aspects of sacred texts, especially from the Bible. In 1619 he produced a collection of 26 Konzerte (\anthems"), the Psalmen Davids, explicitly acknowledging his indebtedness to his mentor Gabrieli and using a kaleidoscopic variety of colours and textures for his settings, which followed the recent local fashion of using German for psalm texts in preference to the prevailing Latin. Schütz provides detailed instructions on the disposition of the voices and the use of instruments; the choirs sometimes have parallel ranges, sometimes they are divided into high and low sections, and on occasions soloists are required. The Italian influence is evident not only in the vocal textures but also in Schütz's transformation of poetry into music. Whereas in many German settings of religious texts the paramount consideration had been the regular metrical pattern, Schütz is swayed by the declamatory characteristics of individual phrases, and so, following his text, he varies the pace from solemn stateliness to vigorous insistence, often using repetition or echo - in a manner reminiscent of the Italian madrigal. Unexpected chromaticism appears at moments of special poignancy - being all the more poignant with an accompaniment on instruments of unequal temperament - and Schütz utilizes the rich qualities of the German vowel sounds and the sparkle of the consonants to powerful emotional effect.
In nearby Leipzig, Schütz had a close friend in the musical director at the Thomaskirche, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), who wrote a substantial corpus of church music and also a number of instrumental suites which include stately pavan movements. Schütz was present at Schein's death-bed and composed Das ist je gewißlich wahr for his funeral. At the age of 85 Schütz wrote his exuberant German Magnificat as a thanksgiving for the grace of God manifest in his life. His Latin epitaph pays fitting tribute to him as "the Christian singer of psalms, a joy for foreigners, and a light for Germany".
The Oxford Camerata was formed in order to meet the growing demand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era. It has since expanded its repertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata has made a variety of recordings for Naxos spanning the music of nine centuries and in 1995 was awarded a European Cultural Prize.
Jeremy Summerly studied Music at New College, Oxford from where he graduated with First Class Honours in 1982. For the next seven years he worked for BBC Radio and it was during this time that he founded the Oxford Camerata and undertook postgraduate research at King's College, London. In 1989 he became a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and in the following year he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. In 1991 he signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with Schola Cantorum and the Oxford Camerata.
In 1996 he was appointed Head of Academic Studies at the Royal Academy of Music, and he currently divides his time between lecturing, researching, conducting, and writing and presenting programmes for BBC Radio 3.
Laurence Cummings was organ scholar at Christ Church, Oxford from where he graduated with First Class Honours in Music in 1989. He subsequently studied with Robert Woolley at the Royal College of Music where he won the prestigious intercollegiate Raymond Russell Prize and currently studies with Jill Severs. He is active as both solo harpsichordist and continuo player and has toured and broadcast extensively with The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra. In 1993 he embarked upon a series of recordings of harpsichord music for Naxos, beginning with the music of Louis and Francois Couperin.