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"A Quattro Cori"

NDR Chor
Christoph Harer, cello; Barbara Messmer, violone; Dennis Götte, theorboac; Klaus Eichhornac, Jörg Jacobib, organ
Dir: Philipp Ahmann

rec: April 24 - 26 & (live) 28, 2013ac, Sept 10 - 12 & (live) 15, 2013b, Hamburg-Harvestehude, Hauptkirche St. Nikolai
Es-Dur - ES 2049 (© 2013) (74'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: D
Cover & track-list

Orazio BENEVOLI (1605-1672): Missa In diluvio aquarum multarum a 16a; Carl Friedrich Christian FASCH (1736-1800): Missa a 16 voci in quattro corib; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Hora est, motet for 16 voices and organc

[soli] Regine Adamab, Keiko Enomotoab, Akiko Itoa, Raphaela Mayhausb, Katharina Sabrowskib, Stephanie Stillerab, soprano; Andrea Hess, contraltob; Michael Connaireb, Johannes Gaubitzab, tenor; Dávid Csizmára, Christfried Briebacha, Christoph Lieboldc, Andreas Pruysab, bass

Some vocal ensembles and orchestras of the past regularly turn up in books on music history. One of them is the Berlin Sing-Akademie. It was as a member of this choir that Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy received a part of his musical education. Here he also became acquainted with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach which had a lasting influence on the course of music history. This disc brings us to the origins of this institution in 1791.

The music recorded here is connected to these origins. The foundation of the Sing-Akademie rooted in the dissatisfaction about the state of public singing in Berlin which was expressed by the musician and writer Johann Friedrich Reichardt. His views were shared by the publisher and journalist Johann Carl Friedrich Rellstab. At that time choirs consisted of boys and men, but the two gentlemen didn't see the need to exclude women from singing in public. In 1783 Reichardt travelled to Italy, and when he returned he had the Missa in diluvio aquarum multarum for 16 voices by Orazio Benevoli in his baggage. He showed it to Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch, who was his predecessor as Kapellmeister in Berlin (until 1776). Fasch transcribed the score and wanted it to be performed. It also inspired him to write a 16-part mass himself. As no choir was able to sing it, he brought together a group of singers, including women taking the soprano and alto parts, which in 1791 adopted the name of Sing-Akademie.

The name of Benevoli's mass, which dates from 1656, refers to the second half of Psalm 32 (31), vs 6: "Surely when the floods of great waters come they shall not come nigh unto them". The plainchant melody of this verse is incorporated in various ways in the mass, but not to such an extent that this mass can be considered a parody mass as we know it from the renaissance. Benevoli worked in Rome and his oeuvre shows the dilemma's which any Roman composer of sacred music had to deal with. The ecclesiastical authorities preferred liturgical music in the stile antico of Palestrina, whereas the fashion of the time was the writing for solo voices and basso continuo. Both genres are represented in Benevoli's oeuvre. He composed a considerable number of masses, often in large scorings for multiple choirs, as the present mass, in which the sixteen voices are divided over four choirs.

In this mass some elements of the text have been omitted: there is no Benedictus, and the last verse of the Agnus Dei, "dona nobis pacem", is is missing. This practice was not unusual in Italy. More remarkable is the length of the Kyrie, which is about as long as the Gloria, whose text is much longer. There is a modern element in Benevoli's stile antico compositions: the use of major-minor harmonies. That comes to the fore here in the Christe eleison from the Kyrie in which he turns to the minor. Here he has also included a descending chromatic figure. This bears witness to his interest in the text expression which was a feature of the modern concertato style. The same goes for the treatment of the Crucifixus from the Credo in which he reduces the number of voices to six: four sopranos (one from each choir) and two basses from the first and third choirs respectively.

It was common practice in Rome that instruments participated in performances of sacred music, playing colla voce. However, in this performance the mass is performed from the perspective of the history of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. This explains that here the vocal forces are supported by cello, violone, theorbo and organ. If we want to be a little fussy we should point out that there is a lack of logic here. Around 1800 the violone was almost certainly not played anymore, let alone the theorbo. And the use of a small organ seems also questionable. The booklet doesn't give any information about the venues where Fasch's performances with his singers took place. If they sang in a church a large organ may have been used instead. Even a fortepiano may have been a possibility; its use as a 'basso continuo instrument' is known from performances of vocal music by Mendelssohn. But it may also have been possible that the mass was performed without any instrumental support.

Another issue is the treatment of the chiavette. The liner-notes state that Benevoli notated the mass in so-called 'high chiavettes'. This implies a transposition by a 4th or a 5th into the register of 'normal' clefs. However, for this performance a transposition of a 3rd downwards was chosen which means that a C major turns into A major. The archive of the Sing-Akademie includes a copy of this mass in the key of B flat which is close to today's A major, considering the pitch which was common at that time. One wonders why they didn't decide to sing this mass at the then common pitch. It is also odd that Latin is pronounced the Italian way. That was certainly not common practice at that time in German-speaking regions.

The mass by Fasch is a remarkable work. It is for 16 voices and organ, and is written in the form of a missa brevis, comprising only Kyrie and Gloria. It is a large piece: the Kyrie is split into three sections, whereas the Gloria comprises seven sections. The most notable aspect is the virtuosity of the solo episodes: many of these have a truly operatic character, with demanding coloratura. In such sections one or several choirs take the role of accompaniment. The liner-notes rightly observe that Fasch has integrated forms of orchestral music and go even so far so state that the mass is in fact a concerto for voices. The 'Cum sancto spiritu' is a fugue in which all 16 voices are involved - a real tour de force.

In the first paragraph I have already mentioned the name of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He entered the Sing-Akademie in 1820, together with his sister Fanny. Their mother was already a member of the choir. In 1828 Felix composed the motet Hora est for sixteen voices in four choirs and organ which he presented to Fanny on her 23rd birthday. In the course of the next year the choir of the Singakademie performed it many times, and it was received with great acclaim. The vocal forces are allocated to various roles. A bass acts as the guard singing "hora est" (it's time) several times, whereas the choirs act as a choir of priests or as the people.

What seems at first a programme of three compositions without any connection is in fact a most interesting lesson in music history. It shows how the dissatisfaction with a musical state of affairs led towards an orientation to the past which then was the starting point for a development which turned music history into a new direction. The two main works are rather unknown; Benevoli's mass has been recorded here for the first time. If we take the performing practice of the time around 1800 as the standard, these performances well live up to it, albeit with some restrictions as I have explained above. The most satisfying parts are Fasch and Mendelssohn. The NDR choir is a fine and versatile ensemble, and its members take good care of the solo parts, especially in the Fasch mass. Their operatic character comes off well, but fortunately the singers don't exaggerate those features, for instance by turning to an incessant vibrato. There is some of that in several voices, especially the sopranos, but within the boundaries of what is acceptable.

In short, this is a production which is historically highly interesting and musically compelling.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

NDR Chor

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