The Cantata Singers, led by David Hoose, performed a marvelous program at Boston's Jordan Hall Friday night, mostly very well. The group is honoring Heinrich Schütz this season, balancing his work with that of composers who are complementary in some way; Bach, Schoenberg, and Hugo Distler got outings in this program, to good effect.
The Schütz Musicalische Exequien, in fact, suffered by contrast. The piece is a German Requiem setting, consisting of biblical (and a few other) texts strung together, as chosen by the man it was written for, Count Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. Schutz is highly attentive to the words, as always, from the first: "Naked I came out of my mother's womb" is sung by a solo tenor. In the first movement, which is most of the piece, the biblical words of consolation are typically sung by pairs or trios of soloists, from a group of six; the full chorus joins on chorale verses interspersed throughout, which are themselves handled contrapuntally.
It's a lot to pull together, and, by the lofty standards of the Cantata Singers, they did not quite succeed. Some of the solo groupings were not ideally matched, and the whole movement lacked a sense of continuity. The final movement is a Nunc Dimittis set for five-part chorus, set against two sopranos and a baritone singing 'blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' as a heavenly response. Two heavenly trios were placed in the balcony, appropriately; but the distance made the ensemble less than perfectly secure, which perturbed the serenity the piece should inspire.
Happily, the second half of the program had all the focus the first half lacked. Distler's 'Singet dem Herrn' was characterized by verve and urgency. The dense choral texture contrasts with the transparency of the Schütz, but Distler also loves the words: with only voices, he depicts the brilliance of trumpets and trombones, and the roar of the sea.
The instrumental forces of the Cantata Singers are one of the finest Baroque ensembles around, and Bach's Cantata 8, "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?", plays to their strengths. Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte, on oboe d'amore, wound sinuously through the pizzicato strings in the opening movement, and Jacqueline DeVoe, on the flute, lent delight to Mark Andrew Cleveland's fervent bass aria. Sonia Tengblad's soprano recitative was particularly clear and lovely.
Arnold Schoenberg's mighty 'Friede auf Erden' closed the program. Closed it twice, actually, (as Hoose traditionally does with this piece) which gave this listener a fighting chance of absorbing some of its dark, lush textures and kaleidoscopic tonality. It's the least sweet, and most evocative, "Peace on Earth" I can think of.
Kudos, by the way, to Lisa Stiller, the outgoing Executive Director of Cantata Singers, for the season's program book, which is beautifully produced and full of erudite Schütziana.