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Exsultemus Channels Hamburg


The Exsultemus Ensemble opened its 2009-2010 Concert Season with an attractive  program devoted to 17th– and 18th-century sacred music from the city of Hamburg. (Three other traditional German musical centers – Darmstadt, Leipzig, and Dresden – will be featured later this season.) The program focused on the three composers who defined Hamburg’s musical life in their respective periods: Matthias Weckmann and Christoph Bernhard, the two star pupils of Heinrich Schütz, from the mid-17th century and Georg Philipp Telemann, the dominant figure in the 18th century. The juxtaposition of two distinct style periods proved to be most illuminating.

The first group of pieces consisted of three sacred concertos. “Rex virtutum” by Weckmann for bass, 2 violins, and continuo was followed by “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz” for soprano, 2 violins, and continuo and “Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht in deinem Zorn” for soprano, bass, and continuo, both written by Bernhard. The performances properly stressed the rhetorical intensity and expressive declamation of these works.

At the center of the program stood Weckmann’s monumental chorale elaboration on the Lutheran hymn “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her,” one of the most extended and extraordinary organ works of the 17th century. Even though the work was not played in its entirety (five out of seven movements were selected) the scale of its sophisticated design became wonderfully apparent through the varied and powerful sound of the Richards & Fowkes organ, the very best instrument in the city of Boston for the North-German Baroque. Bálint Karosi, the organist, turned out to be a most impressive musical interpreter for this challenging piece.

The second group of vocal works introduced rarely heard Telemann works, two solo cantatas “Gott weiss, ich bin von Seufzen müde” and continuo and “Die Bosheit dreht das schnellste Rad” for from his 1731-32 cycle and the concerted psalm motet “Laudate Jehovam” for four voices and instruments. All three pieces demonstrated Telemann’s magisterial command of sacred music, his differentiated musical expressions, and his stylistically forward-looking approach.

The four singers formed a most homogeneous, transparent, and balanced vocal ensemble for the concluding motet after they had introduced themselves individually as soloists in the preceding works: Shannon Canavin with her radiant soprano, Thea Lobo with her clear mezzo, Steven Soph with his bright tenor and Ulysses Thomas with his flexible bass. The strings benefited from first violinist Tatiana Daubek’s secure guidance; Gigi Turgeon (second violin) blended in well, and the continuo group with Audrey Cienniwa (cello) and Bálint Karosi (harpsichord) provided a solid foundation. The conductorless ensemble might have benefited here and there, notably at final cadences, from an occasional waving hand or shaping gesture. On the whole, however, the performers excelled in highlighting two striking culmination points in Hamburg’s musical culture.

Christoph Wolff is Adams University Professor at Harvard University. Born and educated in Germany, he studied organ and historical keyboard instruments, musicology and art history at the Universities of Berlin, Erlangen, and Freiburg. His website is here.

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  1. It is a great pleasure, and an unanticipated relief, to encounter Christoph Wollf’s urbane, informed “Exultemus Channels Hamburg” review (1 Oct 09) in the BMI. Aside from his customary insight into music of this geography and period, there is his comfortable citing of the proper German work titles and – rarer, sadly – his inclusion of standard language diacriticals. How delightful to see hard-working, musically engaging organist/harpsichordist Bálint Karosi for once favored with the proper spelling of his name! Though the reviewer’s expertise is deep, unquestioned by those familiar with his career, his commentary reflects a degree of sympathy and admiration for the performers that is as attractive for the reader as it is inhabitual among reviewers. Prof. Wolff is also among the few critical writers who unapologetically calls attention to, in his own words, “the varied and powerful sound of the Richards & Fowkes organ, the very best instrument in the city of Boston for the North-German Baroque.” Many music lovers hold this to be self evident, but to see it so clearly expressed by a writer of Prof. Wolff’s standing in the international music world is to hope that, indeed, listeners motivated to experience it will beat a path to First Lutheran. This church’s spreading musical glow in greater Boston is truly among the delights of our decade. Thank you for so literate, musically perceptive, and positive a review. It’s a model of its kind.

    Christopher Greenleaf, recording engineer
    Avondale, RI

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — October 8, 2009 at 2:51 pm

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