Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Too much Schütz?

David Hoose conducts. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

The German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) may be an acquired taste. Or at least that's my conclusion after sitting through “Schwanengesang’’ ("Swan Song") his acknowledged masterpiece, and the last thing he ever wrote. Also, I think, the longest thing he ever wrote. Actually, at times it seems like the longest thing anyone ever wrote. This dying swan takes almost two hours, in fact, to finally give up the ghost.

Oops - did I say that out loud? I didn't mean to. I'm all about re-discovering the neglected works of the past, you know, but sometimes - well, some works have been neglected for good reason. And alas, “Schwanengesang’’ may be one of them.

It is of historical interest, of course; Schütz is considered the greatest German composer prior to Bach, and the thirteen motets of “Schwanengesang’’ give one a sense of why: their style is limpid yet austere, subtle yet humbly expressive. And as with the work of the great Johann Sebastian (and Schütz's contemporary, Monteverdi), the piece resounds with an undeniable piety and faith - qualities which are rarely heard in serious music today, more's the pity.

Perhaps, then, the two hours of “Schwanengesang’’ count as simply too much of a good thing. Or perhaps the trouble with the work lies in its central text - the enormous Psalm 119, both the longest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible. It's essentially an ecstatic hymn to following the prescripts of the Torah, and thus is embedded in Jewish observances (several verses are read prior to the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah) as well as, interestingly enough, Eastern Orthodox ritual. The psalm is of further intrigue in that it's an acrostic - each of its stanzas begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; indeed, legend has it that King David taught Solomon to read via Psalm 119.

But ripped from a liturgical context, its limits as musical text become clear fairly quickly. Here's a chunk of an early stanza:

I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.

I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.

Now a later stanza:

Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.

Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.

And even later:

Your decrees are the theme of my song
wherever I lodge.

In the night I remember your name, O Lord,
and I will keep your law.

This has been my practice:
I obey your precepts.

Got the idea yet? Well, it goes on like this for (count 'em) 176 verses.

When you combine this rhetorical repetition (through so many very similar stanzas) with an austere, subtle style, you get . . . well, I think most non-believers like me will agree on what you get. Nevertheless, David Hoose, music director of the Cantata Singers, has fallen in love with the stuff, and so last Friday night we got the whole thing. And I mean the whooole thing. Which, since Hoose didn't exactly keep his foot on the gas pedal, clocked in not at the promised 80 minutes but at 110 - not including the closing Psalm 100 and Magnificat (which suddenly perked things up considerably and were lovely). Clearly Schütz in shorter doses - or perhaps merely with more emotionally compelling texts - can be wonderful. And I suppose "Schwanenesang" does logically cap a season which has been dedicated to this composer. But if Hoose thought he was demonstrating in this concert that the work deserves a place in the modern repertory, I'm afraid he instead proved just the opposite.

Hoose did capture, I think, the appropriate tone of gentle humility. And the concert never grew maddening - just mildly, sweetly numbing. The Cantata Singers, for their part, soldiered on with admirable commitment. Still, the group was hardly focused enough to deliver the kind of pin-point singing required to convey the subtle musical differences Hoose insists are latent in these verses. Then again, “Schwanengesang’’ would challenge the resources of Boston's best professional choruses. The Cantata Singers have announced that Ralph Vaughan Williams will be the focus of their programming next year; one hopes there's not a "swan song" lurking in his back catalogue, too.