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Concert reviews

The Song of Songs
Cappella Mariana/Vojtech Semerad
concert: Feb 7, 2017, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (c1510/15-1555/56): Ego flos campi a 3; Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495-c1560): Quam pulchra es a 4; Magnificat 6. & 1. toni a 4; Heinrich ISAAC (c1450/55-1517): Tota pulchra es a 4; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450/55-1521): Ave Maria/Virgo serena a 4; Jean L'HÉRITIER (c1480-after 1551): Nigra sum sed formosa a 5; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (1525/26-1594): Osculetur me a 5; Pulchrae sunt genae tuae a 5; Sicut lilium inter spinas a 5; Surge propera amica mea a 5; Trahe me post te a 5; Veni dilecte me a 5

Daniel Elgersma, alto; Vojtech Semerad, Tomás Lajtkep, tenor; Tomás Král, baritone; Jaromír Nosek, bass

In the course of history the texts from the Song of Songs - one of the books from the Old Testament - exerted a great attraction on composers. One reason for this is the expressive language with which the love of a young man and a young woman is described. Another - and probably more important - reason is the allegorical interpretation of these texts. The young man represented Christ, the young woman the Church, or - especially in mystic circles - the soul of the believer. When the veneration of the Virgin Mary developed she took the role of the young woman. The fact that a number of texts entered the liturgy in the form of antiphons indicates that the Church embraced the allegorical interpretation and considered the texts useful to strengthen the faith of the people. However, one cannot overlook a kind of dichotomy in the Church's attitude: various people who translated these texts into the vernacular came into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was one of the composers to set texts from the Song of Songs. His settings were published in 1584 as his fourth book of motets (Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum). The first edition's title doesn't refer in any way to the origin of the texts. The popularity of such compositions is reflected by the fact that this book was reprinted several times; later editions are more explicit about their character. It shows that the place of these pieces in the Christian church was a bit precarious. The collection of motets by Palestrina was not intended for liturgical use, but for domestic performance. This also explains the rather intimate character of these pieces. Palestrina also composed several collections of madrigals, which are hardly known. These motets on texts from the Song of Songs give some idea of what Palestrina's madrigals are like. He certainly strikes the right chord here, but one should not expect very passionate music from Palestrina. He always keeps some distance to his subject in his liturgical music, and it is not really different here. His settings of texts from the Song of Songs were the starting point of a series of six concerts in the Netherlands by the Czech ensemble Cappella Mariana.

The ensemble made no attempt to add some sensualism to Palestrina's motets, and rightly so. After all, he was guided by the spiritual interpretation of these texts. There was much to enjoy here, thanks also to the outstanding performances by the ensemble. The singing of the five members was exquisite and the blending of the voices immaculate, without any of them losing its individual character. It was nice to hear the difference between the two tenors: Vojtech Semerad often in the tessitura of an hautecontre, as the French would call it, whereas Tomas Lajtkep moved into the range of the baritone. Likewise the baritone and the bass were clearly different, and above them sailed the beautiful alto voice of Daniel Elgersma.

There was more than Palestrina in this concert. The other pieces were from earlier times. Texts from the Song of Songs were set by various composers. These pieces were probably intended for liturgical use: several texts, such as Quam pulchra es, were part of Marian celebrations. The latter text was performed in a setting by Nicolas Gombert. Jacobus Clemens non Papa set the text Ego flos campi twice: once for seven and once for three voices; the latter was sung here. The longest and most monumental piece was Tota pulchra es by Heinrich Isaac which is considered one of his masterpieces. Its character demonstrated that it was intended for liturgical use, and probably for a larger space than Palestrina's motets. However, one of the nice features of the Geertekerk is that it is in the middle of both. It has a kind of intimacy which makes it very suited for chamber music, but it has enough reverberation to allow liturgical music to blossom. It is the task of the performers to do justice to both and that was exactly what the Cappella Mariana did.

Considering the spiritual interpretation and the fact that texts from the Song of Songs were included in Marian celebrations justified the addition of two pieces on texts from other sources. The penultimate piece was the most famous motet by Josquin Desprez and probably the most famous sacred piece from the renaissance: the four-part Ave Maria. It is sung by choirs and vocal ensembles all over the world and it almost never fails to make a strong impression. That was certainly the case here: four of the singers delivered a refined and very expressive interpretation without making it too sentimental, which is a bit of a danger, especially in the closing section: "O mater Dei, memento mei, Amen". Daniel Elgersma sung the upper voice with impressive ease and purity. This piece has a extrabiblical text, but the concert ended with the Magnificat, the canticle of Mary, which is included in the gospel of St Luke. As most Magnificats it is an alternatim setting, in which the verses are alternately sung in plainchant and in polyphony. The surprise came in the very last bars which include some hair-raising dissonants, something one doesn't expect to hear in the doxology of a liturgical piece, and certainly not in a work from the first half of the 16th century. Obviously a perfect intonation is needed, and that was another feature of Cappella Mariana's performances.

It brought a most enjoyable concert to an end. The Cappella Mariana presented a programme which had been put together intelligently, creating a maximum of variety in character, despite the similarity in content. It also allowed the ensemble to demonstrate its qualities. It is probably not that well-known as yet, but it certainly deserves to be. I hope we will have the chance to hear it again, either during the Festival Early Music or the regular concert season.

This Vivaldi Day was a worthy sequel to the Bach Days of previous years. Next year we will have a Purcell Day. That is definitely something to look forward to.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Concert reviews