Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien for vocalists and small ensemble with continuo, SWV 279-281, are musical exequies or funeral rites. The word, as Werner Breig points out in his exemplary booklet notes, which appear in German and English, comes from the Latin verb exsequi, to accompany out. They consist of a set of three pieces written for the funeral of one Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß, a Thuringian prince. In all three, Schütz applies great formal freedom to texts of ritual church origins, producing the tremendous mixture of somberness and expressiveness that defines his music. In the third piece, the Canticum Simeonis (or Nunc dimittis), for example, he adds the text "Selig sind die Toten" (blessed are the dead) to the canticle and gives it to a trio of singers, a bass, and two sopranos, representing the soul of the deceased and the two angels accompanying it into heaven. It's a gorgeous passage, and Breig points out that Schütz even specified that the three singers be placed at a distance from the rest of the group to amplify its effect. Weser-Renaissance Bremen, one of north Germany's top ensembles specializing in music of the 17th century, includes a slight spatial dimension here, but they don't really bring home how dramatic it could sound. Weser-Renaissance sings everything with one voice per part, with the choir consisting simply of the massed soloists. The group's singers, especially soprano Monika Mauch, are attractive, but the one-voice-per-part approach, although they have used it effectively in sacred chamber music, is less suited to large public pieces like this one. In the 22-minute first section of the Musikalische Exequien, Schütz offers a large-scale alternation of biblical passages set for one or a few soloists in Italian "concerto" or operatic style with hymn texts sung by the full ensemble. Breig warns that without the strong contrasts generated by this structure, the setting would be monotonous -- and in fact it is a little monotonous here, with little differentiation between the sections. The fact that music was sometimes sung without a choir does not indicate that such performances were ideal in the minds of the composer or the musicians themselves. The Bußpsalmen or penitential psalms that make up the rest of the program are not a single work but psalm settings drawn from several Schütz sets; they are in the main more successful. If you are a committed believer in the one-voice-per-part approach in German Baroque sacred music, this performance can be recommended, but general listeners may wish to sample other performances as well.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim