SCHEIN Cymbalum Sionium
Schütz’s close friend Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630) was Thomaskantor in Leipzig, where the juggling of classroom teaching, musical responsibilities and fending off opposition from unsympathetic local dignitaries was similar to Bach’s experiences in the same job a century later. Musica Fiata’s rotating assorted instrumentalists and the eight singers of La Capella Ducale present a selection of 15 cantiones sacrae from Cymbalum Sionium (1615), an anthology of music written before Schein’s Leipzig years but which already indicates his fusion of Lutheran church music traditions and progressive Italianate styles.
These range in scale from madrigalian six-part psalms up to grand Venetian-style polychoral motets, such as the thrilling 12-part Easter motet Quem quaeris Magdalena that concludes the programme. The Christmas motet Ehr sein Gott in der Höh’ allein uses high solo voices separated by a little distance (and accompanied by plucked instruments) to illustrate the angels singing to the shepherds, whereas the remarks of the worshippers below are reinforced rustically by low instruments. The most extensive psalm-setting here is the compelling Gott sei mir gnädig (essentially the German ‘Miserere, mei Deus’); almost every verse features a different combination of two or three solo voices before culminating in a solemn doxology for all six voices doubled by cornetts, viola and sackbuts. Some simpler vernacular motets have music that is more sparingly disposed yet harmonically inventive, akin to Schein’s more often-recorded collection Israelis Brünlein (1623).
From time to time uneven vocal tuning undermines the singers’ excellent articulation, phrasing, blend, rhythmical incisiveness and clarity of diction; fuzzy intonation from the upper voices during Quem vidistis, pastores is a distraction. On the other hand, the boldly overlapping polyphony at the climax of the eight-part Laetatus sum is spot-on, and anyone who admires Schütz’s Psalms of David (1619) will reap a rewarding harvest from Schein’s neglected counterpart.