Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Stuttgart Chamber Choir, conducted by Frieder Bernius, opens the 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Photo: David Goland
Of the three visiting choirs to the October 2017 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir (Kammerchor Stuttgart), under its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (no new face to the Israeli concert stage) performed a program of works of Bach and Romantic composers at the festival’s opening concert in the Kiryat Yearim Church on October 11th. Founded in 1968, the ensemble today comprises mostly young professional singers and is renowned for its high musical standards and stylistic flexibility.


The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s imposing “Te Deum” in D-major written for double choir, soloists and eight soloists. Written in 1826 for the opening of Berlin’s Singakademie building in 1827, Mendelssohn, a newly-baptised Christian, composed his first liturgical work. Although only 17 years old at the time, his complete mastery over every aspect of choral writing is  evident throughout the work. In twelve movements and using Baroque continuo concept, the work relies heavily on the musical language and scoring of the 17th and 18th centuries, producing an eclectic mix of styles. Bernius and his singers’ articulacy of musical expression and diction presented the work’s variety of colour, texture and dynamics. One highlight was the “Te aeternum patrem” (All the world doth worship thee) in which, one by one, each of the soloists commented on the text in ascending/descending patterns. The “Dignare, Domine” (Vouchsafe, O Lord), spiralling into a web of 16-part counterpoint, was also especially moving.


Then, to two solo songs of Gustav Mahler, arranged for a-cappella choir by German composer, conductor and musicologist Clytus Gottwald (b.1925). In “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) (Rückert) the singers created the haunting mood of the piece (reflecting the composer’s inner conflict in his moment of collapse some months previously), their melodic lines melting seamlessly into each other, here and there meeting in urgency and dissonance, Mahler’s message, though finally positive, tinged with the disturbing death knell. This was followed by “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”  from “Songs of a Wayfarer”, with Gottwald’s brilliant “orchestration” of the voices presented poignantly in subdued tones. Mahler’s moments of happiness are tinged with longing and sadness. Following the Mahler songs, we heard the Stuttgart Chamber Choir in another of Gottwald’s skillfully created arrangements - “Solveijg’s Song” (Peer Gynt), easily the most popular of Edvard Grieg’s 180 songs. The singers gave delicate contrast to the song’s two alternating melodies - the wistful, more nostalgic mood and the gently lilting folk dance-type refrain.


The concert concluded with “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesu, My Joy) BWV 227, J.S.Bach’s longest and most complex motet, written some time between 1723 and 1727 for St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was director of music. It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. One fascinating aspect of the a-cappella work is its virtually palindromic form, Bach’s experimenting with structure and balance tying in with how the composer augments the four-part chorale settings with movements of both five and three voices and with its message. What characterized this performance was the choir’s means of displaying the work’s stark contrasts - heaven and hell, joy and suffering - achieved in the more vehement, anguished sections through the abrasive use of consonants and detached textures. And, in contrast, for example, how tender and lyrical the 6th section was, the work’s centrepiece double fugue, finally taken to its confident conclusion. The keyword to Bernius’ reading of the work was “clarity”, offering the audience the opportunity to follow all melodic lines, even in the densest contrapuntal moments. A work with a large dramatic range, it is the final chorale, in its directness, returning to simplicity of setting following its copious transfigurations, that leaves the audience humbled and moved.


For its encores, the choir performed two Israeli songs, much to the delight of the audience.


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