Friday, June 11, 2010

Salzburger Zeitung - Bells Ringing, Choirs Singing

After four days of rain or threatening rain Sunday morning was bright and sunshiny without a cloud in the sky. The bells of Dreifaltigkeitskirche, just outside our window, had mercifully saved their tolling until the 8:00 am mass but after that point it seemed that not a quarter hour went by without bells of some sort resounding around the town – sometimes singly, other times in concert. There are, its should be noted something like 12 churches in the Old Town alone. However I'm not complaining as it is a lovely sound to wake up, shower, shave and breakfast to. And it set the mood for the mornings concert – Neapolitan music for Passion Week by Les Arts Florissants under Paul Agnew.
The lovely Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity) on the Marketplatz next to the Hotel Bristol. The bells woke us up on Sunday morning - we had to get up for the 11:00 am concert anyway and it beat any alarm clock.


Les Arts Florissants – a fluid collective of singers and instrumentalists – was founded back in 1978 by American conductor William Christie, chiefly to aid in the rediscovery of French Baroque music. Under his direction they fast became one of the finest period groups in the world and branched out into other genres of classical music. It always seemed to me that, unlike many of his peers, Christie knows how to bring these often forgotten pieces to life. He never forgets that they were written to be heard not studied. I found this particularly true of his performances of church music. Yes they are meant for solemn occasions – Te Deums, Requiems, Masses – but that does not mean they have to be heavy or dull. I recall once saying to a friend that their recording of the Monteverdi Vespers dances with the reflection of the sun on the canals of Venice.
The twenty members of Les Arts Florissants with Florian Carré at the portive organ and Massimo Moscardo on theorbe conducted by Paul Agnew.

Paul Agnew has had a long association with Les Arts as a leading tenor in many of their operatic and concert performances and recordings. He has only recently begun to conduct and from what I can make out is the first person other than Christie to lead the group. His career path started as a choral scholar in Oxford and continued as a member of several well known choral groups. The benefits of that path were more than shown during this concert. An economy of movement conveyed to his group of twenty singers - in various groupings - the subtle interweaving of some glorious music meant for the observance of one of the most intense periods in the church calendar.

The morning began with a short 9 part Miserere by Dominico Scalatti for cantor, chancel choir, continuo and loft choir which though lovely in itself was strange in its sonic placement. The cantor and chancel choir were behind us at the back of the auditorium, the loft choir in front which threw the audio balance off. Perhaps this would be a good time to say that the Haus fur Mozart was perhaps not the best venue for the programme being presented. A local church – the beautiful Universitätskirche has been used previously but is currently under restoration – would have been better suited but as those bells indicated most would appear to be occupied to some degree on a Sunday morning.

The next part of the programme featured 5 works including three canticles associated with Passiontide by Leonardo Leo, a quintessential Napoletano composer. The first part of the programme ended with what is perhaps his best known piece of church music, a setting of the Miserere for double choir. A complex piece with 8 voices variously alternating, imitating and in unison it was in direct contrast to the simpler Scarlatti setting that had begun the concert. Include in the Leo selections was a solo setting of the last of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the series of five Hebrew poems which gave the concert its name. Though slightly white of tone Hannah Morrison's soprano had none of the hoot so often encountered in period singers. Her diction was particularly remarkable and she sailed through Leo's complex cadenzas with ease. Her final cry of "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God" was haunting.

The second part began with a Crucifixus by Antonio Caldara. Though he was more closely associated with the Court of Charles VI in Vienna much of his music shows the influence of the Napoletana school. The choir navigated the complexity of this 16 part motet with a sure sense of style ending as all 16 voices, which had been heard throughout the piece in various combinations, came together in a remarkable congregational unison "Amen". It was a truly impressive piece of choral work.

The last and longest scheduled piece was a setting by Domenico Scarlatti of the Stabat mater - that great medieval poem invoking the image of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. Written for St Peter's, it was a piece involving 10 individual interweaving voices and from a choral point of view had some interest but even as well performed as it was here lacked the emotional impact of so many other settings of the text.

As an encore the choir gave us two of Henry Purcell's short church anthems, as Agnew explained examples of the far reaching Napoletana influence. And I must remark that the diction in these two pieces, as it had been throughout the programme, was crystal clear even at the most complex moments. Lord, Hear My Prayer was a quiet almost cotemplative ending to a morning of exceptional choral singing.

In retrospect this was perhaps the most satisfying of the Festival presentations but again there seemed to be that spark missing that has so galvanized other years. Perhaps my tastes are changing more than I think or it may be, as I would prefer to think, that the programming needs rethinking.

11 giugno - San Barnaba aspostolo