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Concert reviews

"Jephte & Mirjams Siegesgesang"
Maria Keohane, sopranoa; Matthias Helm, baritoneb; Leo van Doeselaar, fortepianoc; Netherlands Bach Societyd/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Nov 9 , 2017, Utrecht, Jacobikerk

Giacomo CARISSIMI (c1605-1674): Historia di Jephteabd; Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Salve Reginad; Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874): Ach, wie nichtig, ach, wie flüchtig, op. 9,1d; Komm herbei, Tod, op. 16,3abc; Scheiden, op. 16,4abc; Alessandro GRANDI (c1586-1630): Domine, ne in furore tuod; Quemadmodum desiderat cervusabd; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Cantate Domino canticum novum (SV 293); Domine, ne in furore tuo (SV 298); Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Gott ist mein Hirt (D 706)cd; Mirjams Siegesgesang (D 942)acd; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Der Herr ist mein Hirt (SWV 33)d

Despite its name, the repertoire of the Netherlands Bach Society is not restricted to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach or other members of that large dynasty. Music of the 17th century, from Germany, but also from France and Italy, has been on its programmes since it decided to embrace the principles of historical performance practice. However, it seems unlikely that it has ever performed music from as late as the mid-19th century. But exactly that was the case in a series of concerts which took place last week. I attended the second in the series, in the Jacobikerk in Utrecht. The intention of this project was to show, how composers of different periods deal with the emotions of a text. The starting point was that the emotions as such are the same, but that composers express them with different musical means. The main works in the programme were devoted to two female characters from the Old Testament: the daughter of Jephthah, and Miriam, the sister of Moses, written by Giacomo Carissimi and Franz Schubert respectively.

Those were not the only composers who were the subject of a comparison. The concert opened with a setting of the Salve Regina, one of the four Marian antiphons, from the pen of Francesco Cavalli, the main composer of operas in Venice after the death of Monteverdi. However, he not only composed operas, he also wrote a considerable number of sacred works. His setting shows the mixture of counterpoint - a feature of the stile antico - and the monodic style, which came into existence around 1600. The latter manifested itself in textual passages which were emphatically depicted in the music, such as "ad te clamamus". Originally it was intended to juxtapose a setting of the same text by Schubert, but that piece was omitted, probably because of the length of the programme. Next followed four pieces by Alessandro Grandi and Claudio Monteverdi respectively. They were colleagues at St Mark's in Venice for some time, but their relationship seems not to have been very good, as Monteverdi considered Grandi a serious competitor. Not incorrectly, as Grandi's highly expressive settings of Quemadmodum desiderat cervus and Domine, ne in furore tuo showed. The former is a dialogue, largely based on the Song of Songs, for soprano and bass, the latter a setting of one of the penitential psalms, in which Grandi mixes the stile antico and the stile nuovo, the latter represented by passages for solo voices. These were followed by two pieces by Monteverdi, which are largely written in the stile antico: Domine ne in furore tuo and Cantate Domino cantivum novum. The former offered an interesting comparison with the setting of Grandi, which includes a more direct expression of textual elements. The new style which had been developed in Italy was soon adopted elsewhere. One of the composers who was a strong advocate of the connection between text and music was Heinrich Schütz. In his Psalmen Davids he makes use of the Venetian cori spezzati technique, which he mingles with the new expressive style. In this programme we heard his setting of Psalm 23, Der Herr ist mein Hirt.

The text expression as intended by the composers came off very well in the performances of the choir and several of its members in the solo episodes. The singing was declamatory, where it was needed, and there was some effective dynamic shading. In Grandi's dialogue we heard the Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, who regularly participates in performances of the Netherlands Bach Society and is a specialist in early music. That is not the case with Matthias Helm, a German baritone who sings mostly much later repertoire and sang with the Bach Society for the first time. He made a good impression, though, and delt well with the rhetorical character of Grandi's dialogue, and the ornamentation it requires. He did use a bit too much vibrato, though, in contrast to Maria Keohane. Even so, their voices blended well.

The first part ended with Carissimi's Historia di Jephte, in which Helm sang the role of Jephthah and Keohane the part of his daughter. The role of the narrator (Historicus) is given to various voices; one of them is the tenor, here sung by Kevin Skelton, who has the perfect voice for this kind of repertoire. With limited means - 6 voices (SSSATB) and bc - the composer achieves a maximum of drama and expression. It is not only the soloists - and especially Jephthah and his daughter - who contribute to the drama, but also the tutti. The closing episode - a lament of the daughter who is replied from a distance by the upper voices of the choir, and followed by a lament of the tutti - is one of the most intriguing of Carissimi's oeuvre. Soloists and choir delivered an incisive performance. My only reservation was the size of the choir, which was considerably larger than what seems historically justified.

It was the intention to show different ways of expressing human emotions. How do you compare sacred concertos and motets by Grandi and Monteverdi with music from the 19th century? After all, at that time few composers wrote religious music, and if so, mostly not for liturgical use. The second half opened with a setting of the chorale Ach, wie nichtig, ach, wie flüchtig for choir a cappella by Peter Cornelius. Its main feature is the incessant use of chromaticism. This was applied in the 17th century as well, but in a different way. Cornelius uses it for a general expression of this chorale's content, despite textual elements like "Freude" (joy) and "Fröhlichkeiten" (delights). Composers as Grandi and Monteverdi would restrict chromaticism to highlight particularly important phrases of a doleful character. This choral piece was followed by two duets for soprano and bass with pianoforte, again by Cornelius, but here with a secular content. The way the composer treats the text, and the connection between the voices is far away from the conventions of the 17th century.

In the romantic style the main thing is the creation of a particular atmosphere. That came also to the fore in Schubert's setting of Psalm 23, Gott ist mein Hirt, which is scored for two sopranos, two altos and pianoforte. The use of high voices strongly contributes to the creation of a pastoral and intimate atmosphere, which is associated with this psalm. The difference with Schütz's setting is easy to note. It is telling that this piece, despite its biblical text, is not ranked among the sacred works in the work-list in New Grove. And in fact, this piece is much closer to the secular songs than to, for instance, the sacred music of Schubert's contemporary Mendelssohn. The next piece by Schubert was Mirjams Siegesgesang which has a biblical subject, but whose text is from the composer's friend Franz Grillparzer. It is about Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who leads the jubilation of the Jewish people after their exodus from Egypt. In the text we find some very dramatic episodes, especially when Miriam reminds the people of the way God has hit the Egyptians. If you know Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt you will know what I mean. The soprano part is extremely demanding, not only because she has to find a way to make herself heard when the choir is also involved, but in particular in regard to the wide tessitura, with some very high and very low notes. Maria Keohane gave a brilliant performance. Her range is wide enough to cover the entire tessitura; only in regard to volume some passages didn't fully come off. The choir was excellent here (as it was in the Cornelius piece, which is so different from what it is used to sing) and Leo van Doeselaar delivered a colourful performance of the pianoforte part.

As an encore we heard Schubert's Ständchen, probably to give Matthias Helm, whose contributions to the second half were rather limited, another opportunity to shine. This piece is originally scored for soprano with an ensemble of male voices. Here we heard it the other way round: a baritone with an ensemble of female voices. Before criticizing such a U-turn, one should know that in the first performance of Mirjams Siegesgesang the soprano part was sung by a tenor ... Helm and members from the choir came up with a very fine performance; it was clearly noticeable that this is more part of Helm's core business than the older stuff.

To sum up, this concert was historically instructive and musically convincing. Mirjams Siegesgesang was certainly the highlight; it was the first time I heard it, and I had not expected to hear it from the Netherlands Bach Society. It bears witness to the ensemble's excellent qualities that it was able to deal with the very different requirements of the 19th-century repertoire. This concert also showed that a strict historical approach pays off in music of every period.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Concert reviews