In a concert that could have been titled ‘Towards Bach’, the Marian Consort fashioned a themed programme that linked two towering German composers: Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. They were framed with selected motets from the Bach family intended to underline the artistic journey from one Baroque master to the polychoral works of another. Bach’s genius was cultivated through the work of Schütz who himself had been influenced by Venetian composers. Not so much Hannibal crossing the Alps, but an entire musical inheritance carried north by Italian-trained musicians whose works, both sacred and secular, were to form the basis of the Germanic motet tradition.
Such a themed programme is a great recipe for an illustrated talk with musical examples, but what talking there was from the group’s artistic director Rory McCleery occurred after the evening’s main event and then partially during the re-tuning of the chamber organ. Much has been said in recent years of the Marian Consort’s prowess: The Sunday Times described the group as an ‘internationally-renowned early music vocal ensemble’. When I heard the group at the Spitalfields Festival some six years ago (featuring music by Michael and Lennox Berkeley) I recall singers with flawless ensemble and intonation. A few years later, their CD, Pater Peccavi, of Renaissance Lamentations was distinctive for sumptuous vocal tone and an innate understanding of the style. I mention this only because I arrived at the Turner Sims with high hopes. But this was one of those events which offered little more than technically accomplished performances. The flimsy programme details indicated there would be ‘music of yearning and intense pathos to cleanse and uplift the soul’. Accurate as those words normally are, they were only partially fulfilled here; and, so, it is a pity that Schütz’s music is still relatively neglected despite several superb performances of his Musikalische Exequien on CD from the likes of Vox Luminis and The Sixteen.
Schütz is often portrayed as a somewhat severe figure who lived through the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (decimating much of German-speaking Europe), but his music is often vividly coloured and full of rhythmic vitality. It was the latter that needed greater emphasis from the Marian Consort in its account of the Musikalische Exequien, a work from 1636 written for the improbable-sounding aristocrat Heinrich Posthumus-Reuß. It sets biblical quotations and verses from Lutheran hymnody, but its title ‘Funeral Music’ seemingly contradicts the music’s buoyant rhythms, expressive harmonies, ear-catching changes of metre and contrasting sonorities where verse-like passages for solo voices are pitted against full textures. With only eight singers (plus violine and organ), there was only minimal contrast in weight between full and solo passages and the work’s emotional range felt largely unexplored.
Excitement was missing in its dance-like rhythms, syncopations undernourished and dialogue-style vocal lines somewhat unloved. Much of Schütz’s writing here is joyful, but the solo passage for ‘God so loved the world’ (to take one example), with its nimble rhythms, sounded anything but uplifting. Often missing was any sense of attack at the start of tutti sections, and I couldn’t help wondering if this performance really needed a conductor. One has only to think of other small groups such as VOCES8 to understand a discrete beat only need be given to top and tail pieces. Regrettably, McCleery was mostly policing every beat much to the detriment of the music’s ebb and flow. However, singing was secure throughout, with two superb basses providing a resonate anchorage – their contributions thoroughly convincing especially in their richly expressive duet in a portion from Psalm 90. The closing ‘Nunc Dimittis’ was nicely done, but I longed for the performance to inhabit some of the composer’s humanity.
There followed renditions of motets by J.S. Bach’s forebears, their accumulating interest building from a strophic verse setting to multi-layered textures combining hymn-like textures and contrapuntal episodes. It was a stylistic development clearly heading towards J.S. Bach’s great funeral motet Komm, Jesu, komm, where its soaring lines and echoing choral exchanges conjure the lofty galleries of St Mark’s Venice. The Marian Consort brought much refinement to this work – a glorious summation of both the Baroque era and of this group’s talents . If the Schütz had been disappointing, their J.S. Bach was worth waiting for, in a shapely performance that finally took wing, with ensemble, tuning and vocal agility raised to a new level.
The Marian Consort: Rory McCleery (artistic director); Charlotte Ashley, Isla MacEwan (sopranos); Sarah Anne Champion, Lauren MacLeod (altos); Will Wright, Chris Lombard (tenors); Jon Stainsby, Chris Webb (basses); Peter McCarthy (violone), Jan Waterfield (organ)
Heinrich Schütz – Musikalische Exequien; Johann Bach, attrib. – Weint nicht um meinen tod; Johann Christoph Bach – Lieber Herr Gott, wekke uns auf; Johann Michael Bach – Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil; Johann Ludwig Bach – Das blut Jesu Christi; Johann Sebastian Bach – Komm, Jesu, komm
Turner Sims, Southampton; Tuesday 5th April 2022.
ABOVE: The Marion Consort (c) Nick Rutter