Spirit and power on display

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2009

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As they have over the previous two seasons, the Cantata Singers are focusing on the work of a single composer in this season’s four concerts. This time it is Heinrich Schütz, a figure beloved by choruses but little known to a wider audience. Difficult to categorize, his music straddles the Renaissance and early Baroque and prizes intimacy over dramatic sweep.

One of his best-known works, the “Musikalische Exequien,’’ took up the first half of Friday’s program. A memorial for a German prince, it fuses a wide array of biblical and hymn texts into an expressive yet largely soft-spoken requiem. The lengthy first movement switches restlessly between florid passages for vocal soloists and block-like chorales for the chorus. In the last movement, six soloists sang from the balcony in order, Schütz wrote, to convey a sense of souls in heaven.

This is unusual and poignant music, and the Cantata Singers did a good job of capturing its unusual shape and textures. But there was a sense of urgency, of spiritual necessity, that seemed lacking. The ensemble was occasionally rough, and none of the soloists made a strong impression.

The second half began with a motet by Hugo Distler, a short-lived German composer on whom Schütz had a strong influence. The chorus sang his buoyant “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied,’’ with bold colors and crisp rhythms.

Bach’s short cantata “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben’’ contains surprisingly tranquil music for a piece whose title translates as “Dearest God, when will I die?’’ There is no angst here, just a serene trust in the ways of a higher power. Mark Andrew Cleveland did impressive and soulful work in his aria, as did oboists Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte throughout.

Ending this diverse program was Schoenberg’s motet “Friede auf Erden’’ (“Peace on Earth’’). This would be Schoenberg’s last tonal piece, though it pushes the boundaries of conventional harmony so far that it would be easy to mistake for one of his early atonal works. The composer would later regard both its reliance on tonality and its unabashed optimistic yearning for earthly reconciliation as naïve.

When it was written, “Friede auf Erden’’ was thought of as unperformable; the Cantata Singers not only did extremely well by it - unfolding its shifting lines with warmth and clarity - but repeated it as an encore, a testament to this group’s considerable powers.

THE CANTATA SINGERS David Hoose, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, Friday

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