musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586 - 1630): Israelis Brünlein

Gli Angeli Genève/Stephan MacLeod
concert: Oct 17, 2011, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Hana Blazikova, Aleksandra Lewandowska, soprano; Robert Getchell, Jan Kobow, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass; Hager Hanana, cello; Giovanna Pessi, harp; François Guerrier, organ

During the season 2011/12 the European Broadcasting Union organises a series of concerts with baroque music. The first took place in Copenhagen, with the Concerto Copenhagen, with Italian instrumental music. I listened to it on the internet as it was broadcast by one of the German classical channels. It was a very fine concert, much better than the second which came from York and was largely devoted to music of the renaissance. There was just too much well-known repertoire and although there wasn't anything wrong with the playing of the viol consort Phantasm and the keyboard player Mahan Esfahani, I wasn't impressed by the vibrato-ridden singing of alto Iestyn Davies.

On 17 October I had the opportunity to attend the third concert in the series which came from the Geertekerk in Utrecht, so often the venue for concerts with early music, especially during the Festival Early Music Utrecht. It was the perfect venue for the music the ensemble Gli Angeli Genève, directed by Stephen MacLeod, had chosen to perform: 19 of the 26 sacred madrigals which Johann Hermann Schein published in 1623 under the title of Israelis Brünlein. The indication madrigal is of great importance here, because it means that this is no music for the church. It is one of the reasons the Geertekerk, with its rather intimate acoustic, was the ideal place to perform these pieces. It has also consequences for the scoring: this is no choral music, but rather sacred vocal chamber music. And that is exactly how it was performed by Gli Angeli Genève: one voice per part, with a modest scoring of the basso continuo with cello, harp and organ. Theoretically a performance with instruments playing colla parte could be an option, but in these madrigals the text is so important that it is much better to perform them strictly vocally.

Schein's madrigals are a happy mixture of polyphony - adherent to German tradition - and the text expression which was practised by Italian composers. Schein has never been in Italy, but shows in these pieces that he was fully aware of what had been produced in Italy. Every piece from this collection is a miracle of text expression, or even text interpretation. Schein shows himself a master in the illustration of phrases, even single words, in music. The contrasts in Die mit Tränen säen (Psalm 126, 5-6) is equally impressive as is the musical depiction of the sadness of Da Jakob vollendet hatte. Rhythmic shifts, dissonances, chromaticism and sudden pauses are just some of the devices Schein makes use of to communicate the content of every single madrigal.

For a vocal ensemble this is tricky repertoire to perform. It requires the utmost concentration, a perfect blending of the voices, immaculate intonation and a very good pronunciation. During a live concert this is impossible to fully realise, but the performance of Gli Angeli Genève was quite impressive. The interpretation was penetrating and the character of every single piece came off convincingly. One could argue that sometimes they could have gone a little further: some pauses could have been a little longer. I sometimes was surprised by the tempo, for instance in the closing phrase of Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend, "und ergetze dich alleweg in ihrer Liebe". But these are small details. It was a most memorable concert and although some good recordings of the whole collection are available I wouldn't mind if this ensemble would record it on disc.

Just a word on the programme: the lyrics were printed without any translation. That shows too much optimism in regard to the audience's ability to read the (old) German texts. But I suspect the content is even harder to understand for those who have hardly any knowledge of the Bible and in particular the Old Testament. That way many are bound to miss much of the essence of these texts.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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