Monday, October 31, 2011

The Basel Madrigalists perform at the October 2011 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Basler Madrigalisten (Basel Madrigalists) are an ensemble founded at the Basel Schola Cantorum in 1978. Focusing largely on early- and contemporary music, the choir has toured much of Europe, Australia, the United States, Lebanon and the Far East. The Basler Madrigalisten drew a large audience at a concert in the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, October 21st 2011 in the Kiryat Yearim Church in the Judean Hills. The Basler Madrigalisten were in Israel as part of the "Culturescapes" Season of Swiss Culture.

Having founded the Basler Madrigalisten, performing tenor, teacher and orchestral- and choral conductor Fritz Näf (b.Switzerland, 1943) has been full-time artistic director and conductor of the ensemble since 2000.

Pianist Paul Suits (b.California) (piano and organ) has concertized in the Far East, Canada, throughout Europe and the United States. He has held positions in opera houses and music academies in Switzerland. Paul Suits has also composed operas, choral works and songs.

Opening the program with a joyous rendering of Heinrich Schütz’ jubilant motet “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”, Psalm 19 (The heavens are telling of God in glory) (1648) for mixed choir, one of 29 motets of the opus 11 “Geistliche Chormusik” collection (Spiritual Choral Music). In his preface to these works, the composer writes that instrumental forces may be used together with voices (we heard it with organ). From the very first notes of the work, it was clear that we were to hear a vocal group in which each word and phrase is shaped and chiseled. J.S.Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu komm!” for eight voices BWV 229, probably composed during Bach’s Leipzig years, makes an unusual combination of a funeral hymn by Paul Thymich and biblical texts. The Basler Madrigalisten bring out the contrasts between contrapuntal- and imitative choral passages and mood changes. Small separations between key words and the use of strongly articulate consonants fire each phrase; constant, heavy accents on each tactus sometimes worked against smooth singing of phrases.

Moving into the 19th century, we heard Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) “Locus iste” for four voices (1869), one of some 30 motets written by Bruckner, who was a devout Roman Catholic. Näf’s reading of it moved from the dramatic to the intimate, with much emphasis on the word “irreprehensibilis” (without reproof) in the middle imitative section.
‘This place was made by God,
A priceless mystery,
It is beyond reproach’.

Swiss composer Daniel Glaus (b. 1957) is a church musician and organist in Biel and teaches in music schools in Zurich and Berne. He is involved in questions concerning the building of organs and, in addition to music, engages in the study of philosophy, the Bible, art, butterflies and trees and political-economic-ecological-ethical issues to do with the environment. We heard “Teschuvah” (1989), a section of his oratorio “Sunt lacrimae rerum” (There are tears for things) with the composer’s life focus on religion, mysticism and the human voice coming together. With some of the singers placed at the back of the church and others either side of the stage, the audience was gently enveloped in sound, from that of one strand, of long held notes, to clusters, to a layering of vocal timbres, to a lavish polychoral effect; an atonal work, musically demanding of each singer, it retained ethereal lucidity throughout.

Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) composed his Mass for Double Choir during 1922 and1926, but the work remained out of sight (and out of hearing) for almost 40 years; the composer, a religious Calvinist, only released it for performance and publication in 1963. Martin wrote “I did not want it to be performed…I consider it…as being a matter between God and myself…that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.” A work of lushness and scintillating beauty, it bears the influence of Austro-German discipline blended with the sensual sonorities of French music – that of Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. The Basler Madrigalisten performed three movements of the Mass, starting with an expressive and compassionate reading of the Kyrie, its long phrases woven in and out of the two choir groups, the Kyrie ending on the Picardian third. In the Gloria, the singers use their rich palette of gestures and the rhythm of words to build up power and intensity. In the Agnus Dei, added in 1926, Martin gives each choir a very different role – one sings in constant rhythmic movement, the other more polyphonic, with both uniting in the reverent “Dona nobis pacem”.

Franz Schubert composed the “Rosemunde” incidental music for a melodramatic play by Helmina von Chézy, “Rosemunde, Princess of Cyprus”, scored for soprano, chorus and orchestra. It was premiered in 1823, the play was a failure, the text was lost and what remains of this play with ballet and music are some much loved pieces of music. The Basler Madrigalisten, together with Paul Suits at the piano, gave the three choruses of the work a performance abounding in freshness, warmth and joie-de-vivre, with the second chorus “Geisterchor” (Chorus of Spirits) “In the Deep Dwells the Light” leading us, via a carefully blended choral sound, into the darker, more arcane world of characters who are brewing poisonous ink.

Also suiting the character of the Madrigalisten, we heard Johannes Brahms’ “Zigeunerlieder” (Gypsy Songs) opus 103 (1887). This collection of miniatures, its choral writing representing a straightforward approach to life’s issues, makes great demands on the pianist. Näf, the choir and Suits, working in close collaboration, created each vignette of gypsy life – its connections with nature, its wild characteristics, tender songs, longing, innocent moments, highly colored textures and intimacy – achieved by way of large dynamic contrasts and an in-depth understanding of the texts themselves.

This choir exudes energy and brightness of color, each voice section well-balanced, its performance forthright and polished. The choice of G.Rossini’s “La Passeggiata” as an encore was somewhat out of keeping with the evening’s program. The Basler Madrigalisten signed out with a jolly a cappella medley of Swiss folk songs (complete with the call of the cuckoo!)

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