John Frayne | BACH impresses with Schutz's works

John Frayne | BACH impresses with Schutz's works

On April 8, Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, led by music director Joseph Baldwin, gave at Grace Lutheran Church, Champaign, a concert at which Heinrich Schutz's oratorio, "The Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ," was performed. On this occasion, Chester Alwes, founder of BACH, who retired last year, conducted the performance.

Schutz (1585-1672) was one of the greatest composers of the German Reformation and Renaissance periods. He died 13 years before Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685, and he might be called Bach's greatest predecessor.

Schutz said that his work, "The Resurrection" (1623), was the first German oratorio, but his text, drawn from all four Gospels, was set to music earlier by Antonio Scandello (1517-80), an Italian who converted to Protestantism and became an important figure in the musical life of Dresden.

In the concert's program booklet, the text for the Schutz oratorio covers 10 pages of original German text and parallel English translation, and a great part of this text was delivered in recitative style by the person performing the role of the Evangelist. This quasi-heroic task was performed with admirable solemnity and suitably varying emphasis by Thom Baker. The viola da gamba players, who added tonal variety to Baker's vocal part, were Elizabeth Trower, Greta Miller and Nikita Annenkov.

Schutz's treatment of the Gospel accounts was simple and direct, and a far cry from the intense drama of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and the oratorios of George Frederic Handel. But simplicity can highlight the ultimate sincerity of Schutz's music, which, on this occasion, was matched by the sympathetic performance by the singers and instrumentalists of BACH.

We were told in Alwes' notes that Schutz requested that only the Evangelist and the viola da gamba players were to be seen by the congregation, and other singers were to perform behind a screen, in order "to emphasize the centrality of the Word."

So Alwes had the singers and the other instrumentalists perform in the choir loft of Grace Lutheran Church. I respect the desire for authenticity in this decision, but I do like to see performers singing and playing, especially in this work which has passages that tend to induce monotony. Dividing the performers caused a difficulty in conducting for Alwes, which he solved by his conducting below, as Christina Boerger, former conductor of the "Amasong" Chorus, paralleled Alwes' beat in the choir loft.

Another of the oddites of the Schutz setting was that the characters of the Gospel account were sung at the same time by more than one voice, especially the part of Jesus. That resulted in some of the more enjoyable interweaving of melodic lines in an otherwise monochromatic score.

The overall singing of the soloists and the general chorus was on a very high level. Aside from Baker, the other soloists were: Jesus: Emilie Williams, Rob Grisbrook; three Marys: Kristina Boerger, Perla Roberston, Laurie Matheson; two angels: Jon Arnold, Joseph Baldwin; Mary Magdalene: Kristina Boerger, Laurie Matheson; Cleophas: Patrick Murray; Cleophas and his friend: Patrick Murray, Mark Woodcock.

Aside from the "Resurrection Oratorio," also performed was a Schutz setting of the crucial and emotionally charged dialogue of Mary Magdalene and Jesus at the moment when she recognizes the risen Christ. This shorter account was convincingly sung by Boerger, Baker and Grisbrook.

Aside from the choral works, Grace Lutheran organist Dana gave resounding and technically accomplished readings of two organ works by Matthias Weckmann (1616?-74), one of the most illustrious of Schutz's pupils. One of these pieces was Weckmann's Chorale Prelude on "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein," which turned out to be Hymn No. 594 in the Lutheran Hymnal in my church pew. It is sung in English as "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice." I think that is called cultural continuity.

The concert ended with the stirring Schutz work "I was glad when they said unto me," with Matthew Dixon's trombone providing a climactic solemnity.

At concert's end, the audience stood in appreciation, with many necks craning to see the performers in the choir loft.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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