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Concert reviews

Rosenmüller: Venetian Vespers

Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Nov 18, 2010, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Beatus vir; Confitebor tibi Domine; Dixit Dominus; Laudate Dominum; Laudate pueri à 7 voci; Magnificat

[soli] Karolina Hartman, Lauren Armishaw, soprano; Barnabás Hegyi, Daniel Lager, alto; Kevin Skelton, Immo Schröder, tenor; Donald Bentvelsen, Jelle Draijer, bass

Johann Rosenmüller is one of the great masters of the 17th century, and certainly one of the main composers from Germany of that century. He spent a large part of his career in Venice, and that has left a strong mark on his compositional output. But it seems that even before his move to Italy he was already strongly attracted to the Italian style.

Like his teacher Heinrich Schütz he integrated the traditional German polyphony and the Italian concertante style. The influence of his teacher is clearly recognizable in the way he treats the texts in his compositions. Schütz was called Musicus poeticus because of the attention he paid to the texts. The same does Rosenmüller, and that gives his music a strongly German bias.

Rosenmüller's oeuvre is also historically interesting in that old and new elements are represented. Some of his works contain passages which point into the direction of the reciattive which was to become an integral part of many vocal compositions in the late 17th and particularly the 18th century. In the concert of the Netherlands Bach Society which took place in Utrecht on 18 November nothing of this was present. The music performed as part of a Vesper service consisted of pieces which are clearly rooted in the Italian style of the first half of the 17th century. Some pieces were written for double choir, reflecting the technique of cori spezzati which was an integral part of Venetian musical tradition. These as well as the other compositions in the programme, also contained concertante elements in that they contained solo passages for the various voices. And whereas in the early 17th century the instruments often played colla voce Rosenmüller gives them independent parts. The use of strings as well as cornetts and sackbuts lends much colour to the vesper psalms and the Magnificat which were performed.

The psalms were preceded by plainchant, sung by the tenors and basses of the ensemble. They were sung rather slowly, which I found a bit surprising. I am curious to know what is the reasoning behind this. The eight solo voices also performed the tutti passages. This seems one of the options as the performance practice in Venice was probably quite different dependent on the place and the occasion. The voices blended rather well, although the sopranos could have done with a little less vibrato, even more so as the other singers mostly avoided that.

The singing was very good, though, and the way the text was treated was doing justice to the amount of attention Rosenmüller has paid to the texts. The first psalm in the programme, Dixit Dominus, is an impressive example of that. It is striking how far Rosenmüller goes in the translation of text into music. The instrumental parts are used to the same end, and also to add some colour to the vocal parts. The players of the ensemble were technically impressive and also performed with flair and panache.

Unfortunately I couldn't hear all details as I was sitting rather far away from the ensemble. It also has to be said that the Geertekerk is a wonderful venue for instrumental music and chamber music (including vocal chamber music), but not so much for church music. I think Rosenmüller's oeuvre needs a bit more reverberation than the pretty dry acoustics of the Geertekerk can deliver.

But it didn't damage the overall result too much. The performance once again made clear what a great composer Rosenmüller is. Although his oeuvre is pretty well represented on disc - I just have reviewed two new recordings with sacred music -, it is not that often performed live. And as live events can greatly help to convince audiences of the quality of a composer's oeuvre one can't be thankful enough for the initiative of Jos van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society to bring his music to their attention. The large audience at the concert I attended was well deserved.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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