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Concert reviews

"Ein kleines Kindelein" - Christmas music from 17th-century Germany
InAlto/Lambert Colson
concert: Dec 11, 2018, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

[in order of appearance]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten (SWV 282); Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Veni redemptor gentium (SSWV 153); Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Weihnachtshistorie (SWV 435) (Fürchtet euch nicht); Michael ALTENBURG (1584-1640): Intrada super Nun komm der Heiden Heiland; Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Nun komm der Heiden Heiland; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata III in b minor 'Geburt Christi' (C 92); Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Mein Herz ist bereit (SWV 341a); Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Angelus ad pastores ait; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Ein kleines Kindelein; Samuel SCHEIDT: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (SSWV 514); Philipp Friedrich BÖDDECKER (1607-1683): Sonata sopra La monica; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (SWV 344); Matthias WECKMANN (1616-1674): Prelude in d minor; Sonata II a 4; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Ach, daß ich hören sollte

Alice Foccroulle, soprano; Lambert Colson, recorder, cornett; Anaïs Ramage, recorder, dulcian; Guy Hanssen, sackbut; Marie Rouquié, Gabriel Grosbard, violin; Justin Glaie, viola da gamba, theorbo; Marc Meisel, harpsichord, organ

Christmas is one of the major feasts in the ecclesiastical year, and this explains the size of the repertoire written for this time of the year, and the preceding Advent period. Even if an ensemble confines itself to 17th-century German repertoire, it could put together many very different programmes for a Christmas concert. One such ensemble is InAlto; although it does not exclusively devote itself to German music, this part of European music history is part of its core business. In a series of concerts in the Netherlands, it presented a programme which was a nice mixture of familiar and less well-known items. Obviously the 'father of German music', Heinrich Schütz, had to be included, but we also heard pieces by Johann Schelle, one of Bach's predecessors as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and even lesser-known masters as Johann Theile and Michael Altenburg.

Lambert Colson, the ensemble's director, made an interesting observation in the liner-notes. In his programming he connected the celebration of Advent and Christmas with the Thirty Years War, which started in 1618. How did composers deal with this disaster, which would cost so many people's lives? "Advent is one of the most important periods of the ecclesiastical year and certainly by the end of the war celebrations must have had a special meaning. Advent is a time of repentance, patience and hope, and this can also be felt in the choice of texts by German composers. Some texts are from the prophecies of the Old Testament that proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Others are about Christmas and the baby Jesus, or are expressions of joy: people welcome the redeemer (and peace)."

It was telling that the concert opened with Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten, one of the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte by Heinrich Schütz. These are sacred monodies for one or several voices with basso continuo, which Schütz published in two volumes in 1636 and 1639 respectively. Their scoring reflects the troublesome times: the war had destroyed the economy and with it the financial resources of the rulers, which had a strong impact on the size and quality of the court chapels across Germany. Moreover, chapels had lost many of its members, either because they participated in hostilities or fell victim to them. It was not a time for large-scale music of a celebratory character. This piece is a setting of Psalm 40, which is a cry for help, which was fitting considering the state of war and destruction.

The ensuing items in the programme were more explicitly connected to Advent and Christmas. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is one of Martin Luther's most famous Advent hymns, an adaptation of the medieval hymn Veni redemptor gentium. The latter was the subject of a piece by Samuel Scheidt, which he included in the third volume of Tabulatura Nova, a collection of keyboard works. It was performed here first by Marc Meisel at the harpsichord, who was later joined by the ensemble's strings and winds. It was followed by two arrangements of Luther's hymn, an instrumental Intrada by Michael Altenburg, and a setting by Johann Schelle, in which the soprano sings the hymn and the instruments provide the polyphony. In between we heard an extract from Schütz' Weihnachtshistorie: in Fürchtet euch nicht the angel tells the shepherds that Jesus has been born.

Next we made an excursion to Salzburg, where Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber composed his Mystery Sonatas; from this cycle we heard the sonata in which he meditates on the birth of Christ. It was followed by another concerto by Schütz: Mein Herz ist bereit is a setting of verses from Psalm 57, a song of praise, which was fittingly included at this time in the programme. The scene of the angel and the shepherds then returned in Angelus ad pastores ait by Orlandus Lassus, a 5-part motet which was performed instrumentally, with diminutions of the upper part. It was not mentioned in the programme who was responsible for them: were they written by a composer of the late 16th century, when the genre of diminutions was in vogue or were they improvised by the ensemble?

The title of the concert was taken from Franz Tunder's sacred concerto Ein kleines Kindelein. This was followed by the hymn Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, whose melody is taken from the Italian secular song, known as La Monica. A setting by Samuel Scheidt was followed by virtuosic variations on the Italian song by Philipp Friedrich Böddecker. Intended for bassoon and basso continuo, the upper part was divided between the dulcian and the cornett. The audience was invited to participate in the singing of the hymn.

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren is Schütz' setting of Mary's Song, known as the Magnificat, with a brilliant part for the soprano. After two instrumental pieces by Matthias Weckmann, whose Sonata II a 4 reflects the Italian influence in his oeuvre, the concert closed with a piece by Johann Theile, today one of the lesser-known masters from around 1700. It is about justice and peace, and therefore a fitting end to the programme.

As this repertoire ranks among my favourite music, I had looked forward to this concert. However, in the end the performances left me unsatisfied. For several reasons the concert never came really off the ground. One of the reasons was the venue. The chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg has an excellent acoustic for chamber music and secular vocal music, which needs a rather intimate atmosphere. However, the music on the programme of this concert needs more space. The sound of the instruments, especially the cornett and the sackbut, could not really blossom in this acoustic. The performances of Alice Foccroulle also suffered from it. That said, she was more or less the main disappointment of the night. In the opening item, Schütz' Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten, she did too little to bring the piece to life and to explore its content. Her performance was not declamatory enough, and she used too much vibrato. The latter was less of a factor later in the programme, but was still present. I am not sure, though, whether under better circumstances she would have made a better impression. I later heard a recording of a performance in Amsterdam, which was not really better, but that performance had also taken place in a modern concert hall. To be honest, I don't find her voice very interesting; overall, it is rather bland, and has little variety. The best part was Schelle's Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, in which she sang the cantus firmus, and her voice blended well with the instruments. However, the rhetorical character of Johann Theile's sacred concerto didn't come off very convincingly. The instrumental items were generally more satisfying. Marie Rouquié gave a very fine account of Biber's sonata, and Böddecker's variations on the La Monica were excellently executed. Anaïs Ramage was quite impressive in her contributions on the dulcian.

On balance, this concert was not exactly what I had hoped for.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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