Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Berlin "Sirventes" Ensemble at the September 2013 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Making its first appearance in Israel, “Sirventes” Berlin gave two a-cappella concerts at the September 2013 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. The virtuosic a-cappella ensemble was conducted by Maestro Stephan Schuck, its founder and director. This writer attended their concert on September 26th at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church.

Stephan Schuck studied Church Music (organ, piano, conducting) in Frankfurt, taking a further degree in orchestral- and choral conducting. He moved to Berlin to take up an assistant professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts and to be assistant conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Choir. For some years, he was professor of choral conducting at the Rothenburg High School of Church Music, near Stuttgart. Today Schuck works with two groups - “Sirventes” and the "Hugo Distler" Choir, an amateur community choir.

Established ten years ago, “Sirventes” is an ensemble of professional singers, most of them freelancers, who also sing in two other major professional Berlin choirs. All-in-all 32 singers, eight or so of them usually take part in each concert, as was the case at Abu Gosh; Maestro Stephan Schuck selects the kinds of voices he needs for each kind of repertoire (and according to other commitments the singers may have). He uses male altos for very early music and female altos for Romantic music. In the Abu Gosh concerts, there was one female- and one male alto. Schuck explained that there is no one leading soprano singer and that they alternate. All singers are well versed in early music and its many kinds of tuning and they work quickly, with few rehearsals; Schuck encourages his ensemble to sing some works without a conductor. “Sirventes” is the permanent ensemble singing at Noon Songs, a new tradition of weekly Saturday services initiated by Schuck at the Hohenzollernplatz Church in Berlin. Among the choral works performed in these services, Stephan Schuck has re-introduced works of the early German polyphonic tradition, some of which have long been hidden away in archives and are now being revived and published. “Sirventes” also performs contemporary music, some of which has been written for the ensemble.

The Abu Gosh concert reviewed was one of devotional music: the program spanned the 16th to 20th centuries, the earliest work being two motets by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) - “O dulcis Jesu” (O Sweet Jesus) for seven voices in two four-part choirs and the four-voiced “Cantabo Domino” (I will sing to the Lord). In “Das ist meine Freude” (That is my Joy), Psalm 73 for double choir, composed by J.S.Bach’s second cousin Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), the singers presented the motet’s joy and powerful writing, yet remaining within Johann Ludwig’s own expressive boundaries. To the most illustrious member of the Bach family, one of J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) most ambitious motets, “Singet dem Herrn” (Sing to the Lord) BWV 225 is a fine vehicle for the vocal- and musical brilliance of the “Sirventes” singers (Due to its musical- and technical challenges, Stephan Schuck finds the theory that this was a pedagogical piece difficult to accept). Moving between the silvery interweaving of intricate vocal lines, the highlighting of shades of meaning and the playful use of motifs in singing that pushed the boundaries of the human voice to being almost instrumental at times, Schuck and his singers contrasted dazzling sections with the tranquil sections of the chorale, producing an exciting and varied reading of the piece. In “Fürchte Dich Nicht” BWV 228, different in shape and character to the former piece, the singers brought out Bach’s interplay between the two choirs, sending related melodic- and textural fragments back and forth. They addressed each gesture and delighted the audience with the work’s solo content in a performance colored with beauty, grandeur and virtuosity.

The music of German organist Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785), probably a pupil of J.S.Bach, is seldom heard here, if at all. This is unfortunate when pondering the fact that Homilius was considered the greatest German composer of sacred music of his time. “Sirventes” provided festival-goers with an opportunity to hear three of his many sacred works. An important representative of the “Empfindsamer Stil” (Sensitive Style), the subjective emotional focus of his music is via dynamic contrasts, melodiousness, directness, noble simplicity and an intentional avoidance of contrapuntal treatment. “Sirventes” made this music accessible to the audience, addressing and coloring each section of the text with pleasing transparency.

Mendelssohn’s choral music is always rewarding. The “Sirventes” singers opened this section of the concert with “Denn er hat seine Engeln befohlen über dir” (For he will command his angels) from Psalm 91, for a-cappella double choir, written on the composer hearing of an attempt on King Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s life. The piece, blending elements from polyphonic Lutheran church music, the responsorial style of early Italian liturgical music and German folk songs, was later incorporated into “Elijah”. A contemplative piece, the singers gave its antiphonal character clear syllabic declamation, with careful control of dissonances, its Romantic utterances and harmonies lush. We then heard two anthems from Mendelssohn’s opus 79 (1843-1846) also for double chorus. No. 6 “Um uns’rer Sünden” (For our sins) was given a deeply personal and moving rendering. No.3, “Erhaben, o Herr, über alles Lob” (Lord, elevated above all praise) was stirring, with vocal lines sounding clean and bell-like.

An especially interesting item on the program was “Unicornus captivator” (A Unicorn Ensnared) by Norwegian pianist and composer Ola Gjeilo (b.1978), now living in the USA. Involved in film music and jazz piano, Gjeilo has written some very fine choral works. When a student in Switzerland, he came across this late-medieval, mystical manuscript in the Engelberg Codex stored in a Benedictine abbey; evoking colorful scenes, he mixes Gregorian chant with interesting rhythmical influences. The text compares Jesus with all the beasts mentioned in the text. Stephan Schuck and his singers brought out the naive awe and wonder of the text. They infused warmth and humor into the harmonic texture, juxtaposing the various madrigal moods with richly textured, dancelike Alleluia refrains.

Stephan Schuck and the Sirventes-Berlin Ensemble offered Abu Gosh audiences performance of a standard not often heard here; here was a-cappella music that was outstanding in precision, in stylistic accuracy, in its scope of vocal color and, above all, in the blending of the eight voices.

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