Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Andrew Parrott conducts The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble in a program of French sacred music

Camille Saint-Saens

“Sun over Paradise” was the title of the concert that opened the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s 2011-2012 concert season. Andrew Parrott (UK) conducted the concerts, which comprised of sacred works of Saint-Saëns and Fauré. This writer attended the concert November 17th 2011 at the Jerusalem Khan.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, formed in 1993 by its musical director Yuval Ben Ozer, is a professional chamber choir performing widely in concerts and festivals in Israel and further afield. The ensemble’s varied repertoire spans from music of the Middle Ages to contemporary music, singing both a cappella works and others, performing under the direction of Ben Ozer and other internationally-renowned conductors. The NIVE has also premiered several Israeli works.

Scholar and conductor Andrew Parrott, associated with his work with the Taverner Choir, Consort and Players, one of today’s foremost groups performing Renaissance- and Baroque music, is a specialist in authentic performance of 16th-, 17th – and 18th century vocal music, but is no less at home conducting works of later eras. Maestro Parrott is a familiar figure of the Israeli concert scene.

One tends to associate the music of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) with certain popular works – such as his operas, the 3rd Symphony or “Carnival of the Animals”. The fact remains that, towards the end of his long life, the composer took to composing sacred works. His Oratorio de Noël opus 12 is, however, an early work, written when the composer was 23 years old. It is more a cantata than oratorio in length, was composed in less than two weeks and completed shortly before its first performance on Christmas of 1858. Actually, only a small part of the text tells the Christmas story, the rest being made up of largely of Psalms. Somewhat evocative of the sacred music of Mendelssohn, the work is graced with shapely vocal lines and elegant contrapuntal choral writing and is typical of historicism, an approach common in church music of the time.

In the performance we heard, the many solos were sung by members of the NIVE, some solos engaging, others pedestrian. Parrott had his singers pronouncing the Latin text in the French manner. The Benedictus – duet for soprano and baritone, harp and organ – was given a lively, pleasing reading by soprano Carmit Natan and baritone Guy Pelc. Seated on one side of the stage, the instrumental ensemble, though small, provided some illuminating tone painting of the texts, from the dramatic storm scene of
‘Why do the nations conspire
And the peoples plot in vain?’ (Psalm 2,1)
to the ethereal tranquility of the following “Gloria Patri”.
In general, the vocal ensembles provided plenty of musicality and interest in a performance that did not always manage to sweep the audience into the warm Romantic transcendency of the work. There is no doubt that the dry, uncompromising acoustic of the Khan theatre worked against the sparkle usually generated by the work, plus the fact that an electronic organ is no substitute for the timbre and character of the pipe organ.

It was Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s teacher at the Niedemeyer School for Church Musicians, who initially encouraged the young Fauré to compose. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) began to compose his Requiem opus 48 in 1887, making a point of deviating from the overloaded, sentimental and bombastic operatic writing of his day. His use of texts for a Requiem also deviated from what was conventional. Despite Fauré’s being an agnostic, one can not ignore the powerful spirituality evident throughout the work, its harmonic language based on plainchant and modal writing.

A larger ensemble accompanied the NIVE in this performance of Fauré’s Requiem. The opening Kyrie, dramatic and fateful, ‘cellos and double bass creating a dark backdrop for this movement, set the scene for Parrott’s reading of the work, for his emphasis of the play of light and dark, with tempestuousness transforming into delicately reflective, spiritual moments of consolation. Parrott’s interpretation of the work was not one of conservative restraint. The audience enjoyed the choir’s rich mix of timbres together with Fauré’s palette of instrumental color, as in the shimmering Sanctus (Holy, Holy), glistening with violin and harp. Baritone Guy Pelc carried the lion’s share of solos convincingly, his voice luxuriant, his performance imbued with feeling. He was joined by the choir in an involving performance of the “Libera me” (Free me, Lord), in which Fauré paints a fearful and personal vision of “Judgement Day”. The “Pie Jesu” (Merciful Jesus) with its cradle-like rocking lilt, was performed neither by a boy soprano nor by a countertenor: soprano Carmit Natan performed the simple, childlike prayer with melodious tranquility. Parrott conveyed the work’s message, quoted by the composer himself as being “dominated…by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”. Fauré, the organist of the Madeleine in Paris, threads the haunting, sublime sounds of the organ through the entire work. Once again, the absence of the sonority and presence of a pipe organ was a disadvantage.

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