Sunday, May 27, 2012

Vokalquintett Berlin at the May 2012 Abu Gosh Festival


On their way to attend a concert in one of Jerusalem’s most magical venues, festival-goers to the May 2012 Abu Gosh Festival enter the tranquil, succulent garden of the historic Abu Gosh Crusader Benedictine Church. They wander around, enjoying the pine trees, flowers and archeological artifacts, chatting to friends or sipping a hearty cup of tea or coffee with a piece of baklava (pastry filled with honey, walnuts and pistachios) served by one of the local residents.

The event was “Splendid Italy”, May 26th 2012, a concert performed by the Vokalquintett Berlin, an ensemble established some three years ago with singers from Germany, Austria and Israel – sopranos Nathalie Siebert and guest singer Katja Kuntze (standing in for Christine Bohnenkamp), alto Jonny Kreuter, tenor Martin Netter and bass Amnon Seelig. Performing two concerts at this Abu Gosh Festival, under the auspices of the Israel Goethe-Institut, (they gave a concert of English music 25.5.2012), Vokalquintett Berlin sings repertoire of cappella music from the Renaissance to the 21st century, but focusing much on the music of Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Schein and Schütz.

In his opening comments, Amnon Seelig spoke of secular Italian music as all being on one subject - love. And, on the subject of love and its complications, what could be more suitable than opening with Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “O primavera” (Third Book of Madrigals, 1592)?
‘O Spring, youth of the year,
Beautiful mother of flowers,
Of fresh herbs and new loves;
You are, alas, returned,
But without the dear days of my hope.
You are as you were before, so charming and beautiful,
But I am not as I was in past times,
So dear in the eyes of others.’
Guarini’s message in three madrigals from Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) - “Ch’io t’ami”(If, cruel girl), “Deh, bella e cara” (Ah, beloved, fair), “Ma tu, piu, che mai dura” (But, harder of heart) - sung by the ensemble is no more encouraging. The VB singers showed a good understanding of Monteverdi’s expressive- and dramatic style and of the revolutionary declamatory style used in this Fifth Book of Madrigals. They made energetic use of consonants, choosing a steady pace, thus steering clear of over-sentimentality, but addressing dissonances, painting them into the mellifluous phrasing of Monteverdi’s distinctive palette. Nathalie Siebert held the first soprano line throughout with outstanding competence and expressiveness, her rich, creamy voice pleasing. From the Fourth Book of Madrigals (1602), based on a monadic song by Giulio Caccini, we heard “Sfogava con le stelle”, telling of a lovesick man venting his grief to the stars; the ensemble gave expression to the longing, the despair and anger of the abandoned lover.

Resulting from a four-year stay in Venice to study with Giovanni Gabrieli, German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) published his opus 1 - “Libro primo de Madrigali” (there was never a second book of madrigals) - a collection of eighteen 5-part madrigals (and one 8-part for double choir). These bold works combine the influence of Gabrieli’s traditional stile antico approach (the old master also encouraged Schütz to explore new Italian works), the late 16th century chromatic madrigal style and Monteverdi’s text settings; they are rich in polyphony and boast exotic harmonies. Once again dealing with the agonies and ecstasies of love, “O primovera” (O Spring), “Io moro, ecco chio moro” (I am dying, I am dying here) and “Di marmo siete voi” (You are made of marble) to texts of Guarini and Marino, were evoked in all their richness of imagery and harmonic daring, VB’s pleasing brightness of tone anchored in Seelig’s rounded bass timbre. For those of us familiar with Schütz’ polychoral sacred music, it is a revelation to hear this same composer (understandably referred to as “musicus poeticus”) at home with the emotional devices of Italian madrigal style – falling intervals and dissonances to express grief, fast running figures and coloraturas expressing joy, etc, and to enjoy his fine grasp of the Italian language.

The subject of love was taken a drastic step further by Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613), who murdered his wife and her lover in 1590. In a style unmistakingly representing Gesualdo’s extroverted musical tastes, his emotional extremes and mental torment, Vokalquintett Berlin performed Gesualdo’s ‘Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio’ (I will keep quiet, yet in my silence) from the Fourth Book of Madrigals (1596) and ‘Mercè!’ grido piangendo from the Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611).
‘”Mercy!” I cry, weeping
But who hears me?
Alas, I faint.
I shall die, therefore, in silence.
Ah, for pity! At least,
Oh treasure of my heart,
Let me tell you
Before I die, “I die”’.
Never overstepping the bounds of good taste (or could good taste be stretched in this case?), the VB singers effectively presented the unpredictability and excesses of some of the most original and radical music of its time; the unique way Gesualdo wriggles out of dissonant impasses seems to reflect the strategies of his own personal life.

Although educated by monks in Modena, later also entering into the service of the church, Orazio Vecchi’s (1550-1605) reputation was much through his settings of secular poems. Following the distresses and anxieties of love depicted in the works of Monteverdi, Schütz and the Gesualdo, the audience was offered relief in Orazio Vecchi’s “Gioite tutti”
‘Rejoice all with sounds, songs and dances
Since fair spring has come
And valleys are blossoming
And the rose is in full bloom.
Lovers are jesting
And scattering flowers…’
VB’s treatment of it was delicate, its changing dance rhythms celebrating the season of love.
In the poignant “Il bianco e dolce cigno” (The white and sweet swan dies singing), with both its pathos and rapid parlando passages, the singers demonstrated Vecchi’s interest in intense word painting, their vocal timbre remaining uncluttered.

The concert ended with some arrangements for vocal quintet by Amnon Seelig. These included the 1952 song “That’s Amore” composed by Harry Warren (lyrics: Jack Brooks) together with Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke’s “Bella Notte” (the latter featured in Walt Disney’s movie “Lady and the Tramp”) in an arrangement suggesting the style of the Comedy Harmonists, Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will”, the Brindisi (a song encouraging the drinking of alcohol) - “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Amnon Seelig’s refreshingly different setting of Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”. Seelig’s arrangements are sophisticated, witty and understated and they bristle with interesting harmonic toning. (In one of the lighter numbers, alto Jonny Kreuter did a nice imitation of a muted trumpet). Experienced choral singer, Seelig has sung in many ensembles in both Israel and Germany. He writes arrangements for ensembles and is currently studying Jewish Cantorial Arts at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin.

Following the concert, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Vokalquintett Berlin’s tenor Martin Netter, with Amnon Seelig joining us later. Netter told me that, till now, most of the ensemble’s concerts have been in Germany, with an outstanding concert at the Festival of Early Music in Innsbruck (Austria). These two Abu Gosh Festival concerts were the group’s first outside of Europe. All singers work in other ensembles and choirs and most teach. The VB has no leader; interpretation of works is achieved by way of discussion and experimentation; Amnon Seelig talked about each member bringing his or her expertise to the group. As the result of regular rehearsing, whether preparing for an imminent, concert or not, the VB is working at developing its own signature sound, this forming from the rich mix of its members’ musical tastes the various singing styles. When I mentioned the ensemble singing with a straight sound in the performance of early music, Netter stressed the importance of clear vowels and clear sounds in order to have a good blend of voices but mentioned the ensemble’s very economical use of vibrato for the building of phrases and enrichment of key notes.

The festival audience enjoyed its trip to “Splendid Italy”. Vokalquintett Berlin’s members show a profound understanding of the music they perform; their diction is articulate, as is their pronunciation. Their constant listening, their delicate and pleasing choral balance, blend and vocal color characterize the group’s performance, but do not rule out individual musical personality. Vokalquintett Berlin’s performance is fresh, polished and exciting.

1 comment:

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