Classical Music Review: Cantata Singers

By Caldwell Titcomb

Heinrich Schutz

Composer Heinrich Schütz -- The Cantata Singers' main man this season

The Cantata Singers, founded in 1964, has for 27 years had David Hoose as its Music Director. This year Hoose chose Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) as the composer to be featured in all four of the season’s concerts. There were numerous fine composers working in the seventeeth century, but Schütz is the greatest German figure before J.S. Bach.

With a composing career that extended six decades, Schütz left an enormous amount of music from which to choose. For the impressive January 15 concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Hoose selected two unaccompanied works. First came the short (five minutes) funeral motet “So fahr ich hin,” SWV 379 (1648), in which the 82-bar setting, partly imitative and partly homophonic, perfectly reflects the text’s idea of journeying to eternal life.

The second piece was a setting of Psalm 116: “Das ist mir Lieb,” SWV 51, commissioned for a 1616 collection and published in 1623. This is an extensive work, built in six sections (running a quarter of an hour), and conveying the notion of overcoming the “pains of hell” to warrant the “cup of salvation.” Both pieces have five strands, with a division into first and second sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

Between the two works, Hoose programmed two short motets by MIT composer (and Pulitzer winner) John Harbison (b. 1938): “We Do Not Live to Ourselves” (written in 2002 to honor the death of a friend, with text from the Book of Romans), and “My Little Children, Let Us Not Love in Word” (text from the First Epistle of John).

The rationale for the juxtaposition lies in the fact that Harbison has studied, performed and been influenced by Schütz. In fact Harbison wrote a Cantata Singers program note for a 1980 performance of this concert’s Psalm 116. In an essay in this season’s lavish program book Hoose notes that Harbison “has been boldly and openly affected by Schütz, and no season focusing on Schütz would make sense without his voice.” On this occasion Harbison was present to take a deserved bow.

Maurice Durufle

Composer Maurice Duruflé -- a meticulous reviser

After intermission came one huge work, lasting more than forty minutes: the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1920, and took first prize in organ, harmony, accompaniment, and fugue. A meticulous reviser, he did not publish many pieces, but the Requiem, Op. 9, is his most important composition. Even so, it gets few live performances, so we were lucky to hear it on this occasion.

It was written in 1947 for four-part chorus, full orchestra, and organ. The next year Duruflé made a version just for singers and organ. His final thoughts resulted in a third version in 1961 with a medium-sized orchestra of strings, three trumpets, harp, timpani, and organ; and it was this one that we heard, with Peter Sykes playing the demanding organ part.

The work is not a massive achievement like the Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi, but rather a largely restrained piece like the justly beloved Requiem of Gabriel Fauré, which reached its final version in 1900. In fact, Duruflé used the Fauré as his clear model, adopting the same text that Fauré assembled, specifying vocal solos in the same spots, and opening in the same tonality of D-minor. And there are further resemblances.

Stylistically, however, the two are quite different. Duruflé drew melodic material from Gregorian chant, changed meter frequently, and incorporated a good deal of modal and neo-impressionistic harmony. Hoose and his forty-four singers captured the rhythmic freedom and general expressivity superbly. The large audience was greatly in their debt for rescuing a beautiful work from obscurity.

The Cantata Singers’ third program of the season takes place on March 12 in Jordan Hall, with music by Monteverdi, Schütz, Stravinsky, and Poulenc.

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