There is a remarkable sense of joy that permeates the funeral music of German composers in the century before Bach. It is a foot-stomping, dancelike exhilaration, not some sentimentalized otherworldly bliss, and no composers expressed it better than Heinrich Schuetz and Johann Hermann Schein, contemporaries, neighbors and the shoulders that Bach himself stood on.
For the first half of their concert at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill on Saturday, the 15-voice chamber chorus Chantry sang of joy in the midst of sorrow. It was a concert to aid victims of the tsunami, and Schein's setting of "Die mit Traenen Saen," with its agonizing ascending chromatic lines that lead to "and come with joy and bring their sheaves," pretty well summed it up. This is vivid, dramatic music. Its intensions are didactic and its message is direct and unsubtle. Pain is expressed in dissonance and chromaticism, bumpy places in life's path with angular musical bounces. Heaven shines in glowing sonorities, and joy reveals itself in dance.
The six Schuetz motets, all from his 1648 collection of sacred pieces, explored all of these dramatic possibilities. The chorus, directed by David Taylor, sang with a rhythmic flexibility that reflected a gut-level understanding of the idiom. The sound was nicely balanced and, occasionally, even a hint of dramatic diction could be discerned through the uncooperatively muddy acoustics.
The six strings, three sackbuts (baroque trombones) and an organ of the Orchestra of the 17th Century joined the chorus after intermission for the performance of a Requiem setting by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Biber divides the text between full chorus and seven soloists in a sort of concerto grosso format with the instrumental parts sometimes doubling and sometimes accompanying or elaborating on the vocal lines. But logistical difficulties made it difficult to actually hear what was going on. The members of the orchestra (except for the viola da gamba) play standing, which, in this instance, put them directly in front of the singers, effectively masking a lot of what was being sung and forcing the soloists (who were members of the chorus) to struggle to be heard.
This program will be repeated next Sunday at St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean, where, it is to be hoped, the acoustics are more accommodating.