Wednesday, 28 March 2012

800 years of the Thomanerchor

Thomaskirche, 24/03/2012

Fest-Motette for the 800th anniversary of the Thomanerchor: Thomanerchor (dir. Georg Christoph Biller), Regensburger Domspatzen (dir. Roland Büchner), Dresdner Kreuzchor (dir. Roderich Kreile), Choir of King’s College Cambridge (dir. Stephen Cleobury)

Bach: Fantasia in C minor, BWV 562/1 (Thomasorganist Ulrich Böhme)
Anon., 15th-century: Alta Trinità Beata (combined choirs)
Victoria: Hosanna filio David (Regensburger Domspatzen)
Di Lasso: In monte Oliveti (Domspatzen)
Duruflé: Ubi carita et amor, Notre Père (Domspatzen)
Eben: Cantico delle Creature (Domspatzen)
Schein: Wende dich, Herr, und sei mir gnädig (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Brahms: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, op. 29/1 (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Martin: Gloria from the Mass for double choir (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Weir: Illuminare Jerusalem (King’s)
Maw: One Foot in Eden (King’s)
Swayne: Magnificat (King’s)
Bach: Singet dem Herrn nein neues Lied, BWV 225 (Thomanerchor)

Last Saturday saw the conclusion of the Thomanerchor’s annual Festwoche in the 800th year since their founding, which meant that the usual 15:00 Motette was expanded into a choral extravaganza involving two other German choirs and the choir of King’s College Cambridge. I went along to this and feel a little sheepish about reporting on it as I actually missed the main attraction... (the Thomaner sang perennial Bach cantata favourite Singet right at the end and with Parsifal starting at 17:00 I couldn’t stay, sadly).

The Saturday afternoon Motette has scant liturgical content (a thinly disguised sermon and two responses on this occasion) and though applause is verboten it’s really a concert in all but name. With four choirs involved in this Fest-Motette a sprawling grab bag of choral pieces spanning five centuries was perhaps inevitable, though the amount of excerpted content was mildly exasperating (I would have gladly heard a full Martin Mass from Dresden’s Kreuzchor). And then there were the plain odd choices. King’s has somewhat of a Leipzig touring history but this hallowed ground limits – or should have limited – their options, lest we forget that England’s great choral tradition notwithstanding, the last two centuries of English choral repertoire is, to put it kindly, weak. Cleobury of course understands that you can’t very well sing Stanford or Parry in the Thomaskirche, and for King’s guest Motette the previous night he had opted, wisely, for Byrd, Tallis and Purcell. More of the same would have been wiser still, given that the Weir and Maw selections put neither of these two composers in a flattering light, the Maw anthem, ‘One Foot in Eden’, most egregiously – what wretchedly pusillanimous compositional poverty here, even for weekday evensong filler. The current crop of King’s tenors don’t sound as pinched and adenoidal as the ones in my not-so-distant Cambridge day, but talking of crops one of their familiar affectations reared its head on that word (so plosive it was downright silly, in the Maw). More worrying was the wayward intonation and poor ensemble.

While King’s hardly covered themselves in glory, the two German choirs I heard offered a feast for the ears and mind. What tenderness and sensitivity to the Dresdner Kreuzchor’s Brahms! Their gentle way with the text also showed us that diction need not be grotesquely distorted for it to possess clarity. The Kreuzchor also sang quite the most modernist account I’ve heard of Frank Martin’s Gloria, which was considerably more structurally assured and musically forceful than choirs which reduce Martin’s highly individual style to the work of an eccentric like Hauer, or even worse, to something postmodern before the fact (this is very tempting with Martin but necessarily dismissive of his structural integrity).

The Regensburger Domspatzen’s Duruflé Ubi registered as a whispered entreaty, which I found compelling, and their jaunty Eben (not, admittedly, his best piece) as, well, a vehicle for them to live up to their name, which I didn’t. Their Victoria and di Lasso were finely crafted and pointed to a vibrant polyphonic tradition.

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