Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Leipzig University Choir, directed by David Timm, performs sacred German and Austrian music at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Fr. Nicodemus addressing the audience, the Leipzig University Choir, conductor David Timm, on the right. (Photo:Dr. Michael Borchard)
The Leipzig University Choir, under the direction of David Timm, gave a concert of largely a-cappella works at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, on September 4th 2017. Opening the event, Fr. Nicodemus Schnabel, pastor of the church, spoke of September 4th as being the Feast Day of St. Moses and made reference to Moses’ speech defect and communication difficulties. To highlight this point, Arnold Schoenberg, in his opera “Moses and Aaron” gives Moses a spoken role, while Aaron “translates” Moses’ words in the sung tenor role. Fr. Nicodemus referred to art as a form of translation, of music as actualization and that a choir has the ability of “translation”.



The program commenced with the spirited singing of the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s setting of Psalm 98 “Sing to the Lord a new song),  composed in 1843/44 and designed as an Introit psalm. Singing it in Hebrew, the choir members brought out its strong sacred fervour, using consonants to add to the work’s energy. Of the program’s works spanning the 16th to 21st centuries, some were written to texts of Martin Luther’s hymns:  a suavely shaped reading of  Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s text “Verleih uns Frieden” (Grant Us Peace) and also “Mitten wir im Leben sind” (In the very midst of life) a motet by Johann Walter (1496-1570), who was a younger contemporary of Luther. An outspoken musical spokesman for Lutherans, Walter edited the first Protestant hymnal. David Timm led his singers with articulacy through the silken lines of its polyphony, highlighting the piece’s introspection. We also heard Timm’s own setting of a prominent Luther text from 1523 - “Nun freut Euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice), its rich verbal and musical canvas coloured with jazzy rhythms, the percussive effects of finger-snapping and the stamping of feet, some very clear vocal lines rising from the texture, clusters and evocative chordal comments on the organ played by Timm as he conducted the work. The singers took on board the challenging musical techniques evoking the work’s dramatic message of the struggle and triumph of belief over sin.

   

In another setting of "Verleih uns Frieden”  from Heinrich Sch├╝tz’ “Geistliche Chormusik” collection of 1648, the composer links Luther’s plea for peace to the mood in war-torn Germany, following the horrific Thirty Years War. In fact, vivid artillery-like note repetitions  feature prominently in the music, with warlike fanfares (often led by the tenors) present. This Leipzig University Choir singers gave expression to the variety, subtlety and sophistication of this five-part texture.



Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” BWV 225, J.S.Bach’s motet setting of Psalms 149 and 150 and of a hymn of Johann Gramann, may also have some connection to Martin Luther. Possibly written in 1727 for the Leipzig city and university festival celebrating the birthday of King August (following his recovery from a grave illness), it has, however, also been suggested that the double-chorus work may have been composed for the memorial service of Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, titular Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who had been unwilling to renounce Lutheranism for Roman Catholicism. Whatever its genesis, this is one of Bach’s most complex and ambitious motets, demanding instrumental virtuosity of the singers. I think those attending the concert would agree that the work is both musically- and visually interesting. The choir’s Abbey performance of it allowed for the audience to follow its word-painting, its play of motifs, the curious order of entries in the enormous fugue of the first section, the two choirs’ engagement in spirited antiphonal communication in the third section, how Bach weaves an aria so ingeniously through the chorale and  then the mighty four-voiced fugue of the final section.


Anton Bruckner’s “Locus iste” (This place) (1869) was composed for the dedication of the votive chapel of Linz Cathedral, where he had been church organist. Majestic, dramatic and rich in contrasts and chromatic at times, David Timm utilized small pauses to allow for the play of echo in the church’s acoustic.


Towards the conclusion of the evening, we heard two homophonic, chorale-like pieces from Max Reger’s “Acht geistliche Gesange” (Eight Sacred Songs) op.138, composed in Meiningen in 1914. This collection, based on short texts from the German Psalter, shows Reger’s mastery of straightforward setting, referred to as the “new simplicity”. Works not frequently enough performed, the choir’s articulacy and precision were matched with much dynamic interest.


And for a different and special item: playing the Dormition Abbey’s large Oberlinger organ, David Timm presented his own Romantic-style improvisation on the “Agnus Dei” from J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor, his playing  brimming with warmth, musical ideas, personal expression and reflection.


Felix Mendelssohn had been quoted as saying: “The most natural music of all occurs when four people go out together in the woods or in a boat, and carry the music with them and inside them." For an encore, the choir sang Mendelssohn’s “Abschied vom Walde”, sending the audience home with with a strong endorsement of Mendelssohn’s ideal of the rewards of the singing of part songs.The Leipzig University Choir, under Maestro David Timm’s direction, is an ensemble engaging in performance that is varied, informed, disciplined and polished.










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