A heartfelt tribute to an enlightened ruler and respected friend, by one of the greatest composers of the baroque or indeed of any era - it's little wonder that Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien stands today as one of the great masterpieces of music for the dead. This work arose from an exceptional combination of circumstances. It was written for the funeral of Prinz Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss, the cultured and humane ruler of the German principality of Gera, whose relationship with the composer was one of mutual respect and friendship. The prince, whose second name was given as a result of his father having died between the prince's conception and birth, had carefully chosen the Lutheran Biblical texts he wished to have sung after his death. Upon the prince's death, his widow asked his composer friend to set these texts to music for the funeral; and all of this, combined with Schütz's stature as a musician of undeniable genius, resulted in a work that was not only a personal and moving tribute to a friend, but a truly beautiful and universal work of sadness and comfort in death. What is more, the listeners of 1635 would surely have found added poignancy in those parts of the text that expressed the trials and tribulations of the human condition, reflecting the devastating misery of the Thirty Years' War which was engulfing Central European society at every level.
As befits a work of such quality, the Musikalische Exequien has always been extremely well served on CD; but this present recording, from the Belgian-based group Vox Luminis directed by Lionel Meunier, is surely one of the best. Their approach is very simple - with pure, clear voices, singing two to a part in the tutti passages or solo as appropriate, and with instrumental participation reduced to bare essentials in the form of bass viol and positive organ, they let the music speak for itself. Their voices are all of the very finest, there is not a weak link anywhere, and their performance is imbued with dignity, sincerity and sheer expressive power. The group's beautiful sound is finely captured in an ideal church acoustic, with the remoteness of the second choir in the closing movement, 'Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener', caught to perfection. The four additional motets on the disc, as well as the Samuel Scheidt organ chorale, are equally lovely.
In view of the many fine recordings of the Exequien available, it would take a brave man or woman to single out a clear best choice - even if you knew them all, which I don't. There are at least a dozen highly-regarded versions available, including those under Gardiner, Herreweghe, Mauersberger, Haller, Cordes, Rademann and Lasserre. With great difficulty, then, I can only say that my own preference among the ones I know would probably vacillate endlessly between three of the versions on a more intimate scale. These are, but not in any particular order: the beautiful, stylish and heartfelt performance by La Chapelle Rhénane directed by Benoît Haller, sung by a similarly small complement of fine voices, but with a richer accompaniment of instruments and all sounding quite superb; that's on the K617 label, coupled with an equally fine version of Schütz's Resurrection Story and listed by Amazon under that title Schütz - Histoire de la Résurrection
. Secondly, a truly lovely version from Weser-Renaissance Bremen directed by Manfred Cordes; the voices are wonderful, the small group of instruments just right; Cordes moves the music along at a slightly smarter pace compared to the others, which works superbly, and there's an engaging feeling of naturalness about the whole thing which, once heard, I certainly wouldn't want to be without: Schutz: Musikalische Exequien (Musikalische Exequien/ Bußpsalmen/ Psalm 6,51,102,130&143)
. And, of course, there's this present disc from Vox Luminis, for all the reasons already given. Having said all that, I know there are many who would swear by the recording from John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir Schütz: Motets and Concertos
; in fact I've been lucky enough to hear them perform the work live, and they too were wonderful.
If all this sounds non-committal, I'm afraid it has to be. If any other customers would care to comment with your own ideas, you'd be most welcome. Finally, though, just in case it still needs to be said, this work is one of the most affecting masterpieces in western music and, if you can hear at least one recording or performance of it, I believe you'll feel glad to be alive.