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San Francisco Examiner Review: The seventeenth-century Christmas service at St. Mark’s

December 19th, 2011

This review was posted at the San Francisco Examiner on December 19 2011.

The San Francisco Early Music Society and Warren Stewart’s Magnificat combined forces this season to reconstruct a Christmas Vespers service, as it would have been given in the Dresden Court Chapel of 1660.  This production was given its San Francisco performance last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.  The Lesson for such a service would have been an account of the Nativity from one of the Gospels.  Music for the service would have been the responsibility of the Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, at that time Johann Georg I.  That Kapellmeister in 1660 was Heinrich Schütz.

Thus, the major work at last night’s performance was a setting of Nativity texts in what was probably one of the earliest forms of oratorio.  This involved music for both a chorus and soloists, with the soloists corresponding to the characters of the narrative along with an “Evangelist” narrator, with instrumental accompaniment.  For the libretto for this narrative, Schütz drew upon two of the Gospels:  Luke (primarily the first 21 verses of the second chapter) and Matthew (the first 23 verses of the second chapter).  In addition to the Evangelist, the characters consisted of an angel, the shepherds in the field, the three wise men, Herod, and his high priests.

The musical resources included eight male vocalists sharing the dramatic roles and singing as a chorus.  The evangelist was sung by the baritone Martin Hummel.  The other vocalists included two sopranos (Andrew Rader and Dominic Lim), two altos (Clifton Massey and Christopher LeCluyse), one tenor (Daniel Hutchings), and two basses (Hugh Davies and Peter Becker).  For instrumentalists Magnificat provided two violinists (Carla Moore and Anthony Martin) and theorbo (John Lenti) and organ (Katherine Heater) for continuo.  They were joined by the wind players of The Whole Noyse:  Steve Escher and Alexandra Opsahl playing both cornett and recorder, Richard Van Hessel and Sandford Stadtfeld on sackbut, and Herbert Myers on curtal (an early form of bassoon, which sometimes contributed to the continuo).  The remaining string parts were taken by members of The Sex Chordæ Consort of Viols, including gamba (Julie Jeffrey and David Morris), violone (Farley Pearce), and bass viol (John Dornenburg) contributing to the continuo.

This made for quite a production, all conducted by Stewart.  Perhaps because this month began with the rich polyphonic counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 mass setting in B minor, as performed by Philharmonia Baroque, what was most striking about Schütz’ setting was a similar sophistication of counterpoint.  Thus, regardless of one’s religious reactions, this concert offered a valuable perspective on contrapuntal composition.  Schütz acquired much of his skill from his studies in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli and was then able to exercise his talents in Saxony.  Bach would have been well aware of Schütz’ impact on German liturgical music in the preceding century.  Others may have called Bach old-fashioned;  but he more likely saw himself continuing the tradition established by Schütz a century earlier and passed down to him by members of his own family.  Stewart realized this contrapuntal sophistication through his balance of vocal and instrumental resources with stunning effect, taking a story that just about everyone has committed to memory and delivering it with a freshness that belied its seventeenth-century origins.

Equally impressive was the performance of the Magnificat canticle that concluded the Vespers service.  This was a setting of the Latin text by Francesco Cavalli taken from hisMusiche sacre collection published in 1656.  While Schütz did not study with Cavalli, this selection provided an excellent sample of the contrapuntal composition style for voices and instruments that would have influenced Schütz while he was in Venice and would have received more directly from Gabrieli.  In this case, however, the counterpoint was interrupted by the interpolation of three German hymns, “Wir Christenleut,” “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen all zugleich,” and “In dulci jubilo,” all sung without harmonization or instrumental accompaniment.

These two compositions were the high points of the full service (which lasted about 90 minutes).  Other portions of the liturgy involved settings by Hans Leo Hassler, Johann Christoph Demantius, Vincenzo Albrici, and Samuel Scheidt, as well as hymns sung without harmonization.  The effect of the whole was an appreciation for the role that music could play in bringing the mind to devotional rituals usually dismissed as routine and thus a corresponding appreciation for the impact of an excellent Kapellmeister, such as Schütz or Bach.

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