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Concert reviews

Sacred concertos for two basses
Gli Angeli Genève/Stephan MacLeod
concert: Oct 27, 2018, Utrecht, Jacobikerk

Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Laetatus sum; Nisi Dominus; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron (BuxWV 45); Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657-1714): Der Himmel mach' es wie er will; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1617-1684): Congregati sunt; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1623-1680): Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (SWV 447); Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Frieden fahren; O Jesu dulcissime

Benoît Arnoulda, Stephan MacLeodb, bass; Leila Schayegh, Eva Saladin, violin; Deirdre Dowling, Anneke van Haaften, viola; Michael Chanu, violone; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Francis Jacob, organ

In the Early Music Festival Utrecht of 2016 Stephan MacLeod and his ensemble Gli Angeli Genève were artists in residence. One of their concerts was a performance of duets for two basses; the central figure was Johann Rosenmüller, but other composers were also represented in the programme. The performances were pretty good, but were handicapped by the fact that one of the singers, Benoît Arnould, was indisposed due to a sore throat. Last week the ensemble appeared again with a comparable programme. A part of it was even identical with that of 2016, but this time Rosenmüller played a minor role, with just one piece. Again Stephan MacLeod partnered up with Arnould, who was fully healthy this time and could show his qualities.

Another difference with 2016 was the venue: the latter concert took place in the chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg, whose acoustic is excellent for instrumental music and programmes of solo songs, but far less fit for sacred music. The Jacobikerk was a more appropriate venue, although the reverberant acoustic caused some problems as well. Even so, the circumstances were much more in favour of the repertoire than in 2016.

The programme opened with one of the best-known pieces by Heinrich Schütz, Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott. The bass sings the hymn melody, whereas the instruments deliver the polyphony. One could compare this piece with English consort songs: the singer is not so much the soloists, but part of the musical fabric. That didn't really come off: MacLeod was too dominant and too loud, although I realise that was probably less of a problem for those in the audience who were seated further back in the church. Next came Franz Tunder's sacred concerto for two basses, Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, a setting of the Canticle of Simeon. Here Tunder mixes features of the Italian monody with the German polyphonic tradition. In the instrumental introduction the reverberation in the church made itself felt. Especially the sometimes fast tempi made it hard to hear the different parts and damaged the articulation. The voices of MacLeod and Arnould are quite different, but they blended beautifully, and the result was an expressive performance which did full justice to the text.

Arnould was then on his own in a solo cantata by Dieterich Buxtehude: Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron, a setting of a text from the Song of Solomon. As one expects in such a piece, there is much sensitivity in the treatment of the text, which Arnould realised convincingly. This piece is also a token of the way in which Buxtehude had internalized the Italian style, which was demonstrated by the inclusion of coloratura. Comparable in character is Tunder's concerto O Jesu dulcissime, which is a typical product of German pietism. It was treated accordingly by MacLeod.

A purely Italian style was represented by Johann Rosenmüller; like in the 2016 concert we heard his concerto Congregati sunt, which opens as a battaglia. In order to depict the threat of violence by the enemies, Rosenmüller turns to the stile concitato we know from Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The strings delivered a graphic performance of this section, and the two singers did exactly the same. It made a lasting effect, and one understands why Rosenmüller wrote the vocal parts for basses rather than high voices, as was common practice in Italy, where he worked for most of his life.

Very different was a strophic aria by the youngest composer in the programme, Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The largest part of his oeuvre has been lost, and that is very regrettable, considering the quality of what has been preserved. The aria Der Himmel mach' es wie er will is a very fine specimen of his art. It is an intimate and expressive piece, which received a subtle and sensitive interpretation by Benoît Arnould. Sometimes he sang very softly, and rightly so, but whether the audience further back have heard everything, I am not sure about.

The largest part of the repertoire was from the pen of German composers. However, Austria was also represented. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer worked for most of his life at the imperial court in Vienna. He was a brilliant violinist, but also a composer of very fine music for an instrumental ensemble. One of his best-known and rightly famous pieces is the Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III, in which the first violin plays a solo role. This part was excellently realised by Leila Schayegh, who then was MacLeod's partner in Nisi Dominus by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. The word 'partner' is deliberately chosen, because voice and violin are equally important. This piece is in fact a duet of bass and violin, and often the violin has even the lead. The cooperation was pretty much ideal, and MacLeod managed to adapt his voice - which is quite powerful - to the sound of the violin. In Schayegh's performance of the violin part expression and technical prowess went hand in hand.

The concert ended with another piece by Biber, the duet Laetatus sum, for two basses and an instrumental ensemble of two violins, two violas and basso continuo. Here we noted Biber's command of counterpoint in the way he weaves a tapestry of vocal and instrumental lines. There is a fine balance between the voices in the interest of an expression of the text, and in the instrumental ensemble the first violin again has a marked role.

It brought a most interesting and musically captivating event to a close. It is interesting to note how important the role of the bass is in music from the German-speaking world of the 17th century. It continues to play a major role in sacred music in the 18th century; the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach bears witness to that. It is very different from the predominance of high voices in Italian music. We heard some of the finest specimens of German music for low voices, and witnessed the way German and Austrian composers mixed elements of the brilliant Italian style and German tradition of counterpoint. Add to that the supreme level of violin playing and composing for the violin which were features of the German-Austrian violin school. The performers at this concert left nothing to be desired and fully explored the qualities of the pieces they had selected. The long applause of the audience was well deserved.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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