The St. John Passion, SWV 481, from late in the career of Heinrich Schütz, poses severe challenges to performers with its minimal a cappella setting, and recordings of it are sparse despite the fascinating contrast the work makes with Bach's Passions. After an opening polyphonic chorus, the listener is plunged into the biblical story, set to chant-like lines embodying the Evangelist narrator, Jesus, and the other figures attending Christ's crucifixion. The chorus plays the role of the crowd, providing the only animated moments in the score; Christ's death is marked only by a slight broadening of the declamation, and everything else is recounted in a neutral but somehow hypnotically flexible single vocal line. Originally recorded in either 1988 or 1990 (the performance marks in the booklet and on the back cover disagree), this performance came well in advance of the vogue for one-voice-per-part performances of German Baroque choral music, and the reason given for its interpretation in that style rests not on historical evidence but in order to evoke a "Lectio Passionis" around the cantor's stand. The chorus consists simply of the soloists coming together as a group. The result is an intimate, thoughtful quality that works well for this piece; the singers of the Collegium Musicum Plagense are of modest abilities, but they hold the pitch and keep the momentum going through half an hour of a cappella music. The news is less good in the selections from Schütz's Cantiones sacrae (1625), sort of spiritual madrigals that mix the chromatic language of the late sixteenth century with the new monodic style; here an organ continuo is used. These pieces have also been sung both by solo groups and by choirs; in either case, however, they were apparently written for virtuoso singers who could handle twisting chromatic lines in which Schütz sounds like Luca Marenzio or Carlo Gesualdo (the St. John Passion and the Cantiones sacrae stand at opposite poles of Schütz's output). Here the soprano line, especially, muddies the intervals, robbing the music of its drama. The St. John Passion is nevertheless worth considering among the various versions of this difficult work. The booklet outlines some of the numerical symbolism possibly found in the St. John Passion, whose text is given in German only; the Cantiones sacrae motets are given in Latin and German.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
O bone, o dulcis, o benigne, motet for 2 sopranos, alto, tenor, bass & continuo, SWV 53-54 (Op. 4/1-2)
Quid commisisti, o dulcissimi puer, motet for soprano, alto, tenor, bass & continuo, SWV 56-60 (Op. 4/4-8)