I’m not sure that I had ever heard anything by Heinrich Schütz before this afternoon but I’m glad that I have now. His St. John Passion formed the first half of the closing concert of the Toronto Bach Festival at St. Barnabas on the Danforth this afternoon. Written in 1666, towards the end of his life ,it’s steeped in the Lutheran tradition. There’s no orchestra. The main burden of the Gospel is taken by the Evangelist as narrator in a style not very far from the Anglican traditional style of singing metrical psalms. The emphasis is on the text; indeed on The Word. Members of the chorus contribute in similar style as Jesus, Pilate and so on. The narrative is interspersed with polyphonic choruses with sparse organ accompaniment perhaps hinting at an even older tradition where the meaning of the words mattered less.
Nils Brown sang the Evangelist with most excellent diction and a very clear sense of the required style. Various members of the chorus(1), notably Joel Allison as Jesus, joined in as required. The polyphonic singing was polished and John Abberger directed sensitively. Though the Lord Protector was dead by 1666 I think he would have approved (2).
After the interval we got two early Bach cantatas; Christ lag in Todesbanden and Der Herr denket an uns, with Ellen McAteer, Simon Honeyman, Nils Brown and Joel Allison as soloists. There was also a six piece string section plus organ. It seems like a really odd thing to say about Bach but after the Schütz they sounded almost operatic, though Bach, inevitably, also finds a confounding simplicity; most notably in the unison final verse of Christ lag in Todesbanden. Lovely singing again here with a particularly touching solo from Ellen in Der Herr denket an uns.
A most enjoyable afternoon.
FN1: Everyone mentioned plus Rebecca Genge, Camille Rogers, Cory Knight, Valdis Jeftejevs and Keith Lam.
FN2: I really don’t know why the Schütz summoned up for me Cromwell and in particular his “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.” but there is something of the New Model in Schütz’ method perhaps.