in: Reviews

May 4, 2014

HR-Chorus Fine in Haydn and CPE Bach

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Katarzyna Sadej was radiant of visage and voice

Katarzyna Sadej was radiant of visage and voice

To this geezer, the sight of a very large, inclusive chorus with lots of old folks at home on the Sanders Theatre stage Friday was inspiring. The Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus was “envisioned as a training chorus for those without significant choral experience that [would] reach out to many communities.” While only about one third of the singers seemed to be of undergraduate age, those relative youngsters seemed to color their respective sections, especially the sopranos, consequently one was not aurally aware of the rather high average age. In fact, the choral tone was often transparent and always well-blended. For this community chorus, no accommodations had to be made for slowing tempi. Overall the program was lively and quick.

Annotators have remarked on the cautionary and foreboding nature of Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War or Paukenmesse, Hob. XXII:9) in C Major, but that was really not evident in the performance we heard. Instead we got Haydn’s geniality and perhaps his nervousness. The score I read has frequent dynamic changes but no hairpins indicating crescendi or decrescendi. So we heard lots of rather abrupt contrasts, though less abrupt and slower to evolve than with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the same work last year. The soloists were up and down like jumping jacks, with only the bass Harris Ipock having an extended sing (and a very sonorous one) in the Credo.

It was clear from the beginning that this was not going to be a crisp, lithe, early music take. The 130 singers of the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, well spread out across the entire Sanders Theatre stage, made a lusty if undifferentiated stereophonic wall of sound. The effect was something like a Hollywood take on Welsh choruses in “How Green Was my Valley.” If at times the chorus seemed forte-fixated, it was probably, as one of the choristers told me, that they were afraid of being covered by the orchestra.

Since its 1978 founding by minister/musician Larry Hill as a cooperative ensemble, the Pro Arte Chamber orchestra has given many memorable performances. They played in a generalized modern style that was generous in the pleasures it afforded, though there were certainly moments from the horns and the solo cello that are better unmentioned. The paukenist, Jeffrey Fisher, was exemplary.

Conductor Edward Elwyn Jones was a fine Feldmarschall. He knew when to ask his troops to charge and when to ask for tactical retreats. He seemed to share the enthusiastic sense of occasion and often levitated in pursuit of extra excitement. In the Quoniam he led a grand accelerando and elsewhere some stunning ritards. The singers really appeared to enjoy working under him, and one feels that with one more rehearsal, the orchestra might have followed Jones with more nuance.

Though they were invariably effective, most especially in the sustained, reflective Et misericordia eius, the chorus has much less to do in C. P. E. Bach’s Magnificat. Much longer and a good bit less inspired than his father’s setting of the same text, it opens with Emanuel’s most frequently excerpted music [listen here]—the theme of at least one long-forgotten radio show and the sign-off music for the old WCRB.

According to BMInt’s David Schulenberg, whose book on C. P. E. Bach is coming out in the fall,

CPEB’s Magnificat is just about the longest known Magnificat, and although it reminds some people of his father’s, it actually has more in common with works by C. H. Graun and other composers who were active in Berlin at the same time CPEB was there writing this piece (1749); CPEB probably felt he had to prove something by writing a very long, complicated fugue at the end, but I don’t believe it’s a very successful piece, and although a good conductor might be able to shape it in a convincing way, I’ve never heard a performance that made it more than a series of not very well-connected sections; and finally, the version usually heard today is a revised version with expanded instrumentation that CPEB prepared at Hamburg in the 1770s, but the added trumpets and drums just make it louder and in most performances actually cover up the main melodic lines, which are in the violins and voices.

Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)

Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)

Three arias and a duet gave the soloists much more of an opportunity to communicate with us than they had in the Haydn. In the Quia respexit, soprano Deborah Selig gave forth very pleasant tones and was well supported by the continuo led by Dylan Sauerwald on a chamber-organ. Bass Harris Ipock had another fine outing in the Fecit potentiam, showing attitude and engagement and some fine F and G money notes. In the duet Deposuit potentes tenor Gregory Zavracky seemed to awake from the placidity he had exhibited in the Paukenmesse. He must have been inspired by his mezzo-soprano partner Katarzyna Sadej. His high notes counted and many of his passages really seemed to rip. The contrasts of the two voices often crossing in registers was quite charming.

The alto aria Sucepit Israel was perhaps the most artistic moment in the performance, especially as sung by the ravishing Katarzyna Sadej. The rapture on her visage was certainly projected in her voice. It was too bad that the orchestra didn’t listen to her shapely phrases, follow her example, and give her a bit more breathing space in her pianissimos. David Schulenberg tells us that this section is “perhaps a little less formulaic or overextended than some of the other movements, and is actually a later composition, which Bach substituted for the original, choral setting of this movement when he revised the work at Hamburg.”

And if as Schulenberg speculated, the final grosse Fuge on Amen was a bit too much, despite some shaky fugal entrances the forces did end grandly together and elicited obvious enthusiasm from the audience—no cpr was needed in this CPE.

 F. Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

1 Comment

  1. Lee, I’m afraid I misled you in describing the “Suscepit Israel” as “a later composition, which Bach substituted for the original, choral setting of this movement when he revised the work at Hamburg.”

    Actually it was the “Et misericordia” that Bach replaced. And he replaced it with another chorus! My apologies for mixing up two of the work’s more lugubrious numbers. I do agree with you that there is nevertheless something peculiarly beautiful about the “Suscepit Israel,” perhaps its relatively simple melodic style (which looks forward to some of the composer’s later lieder) and the touching harmony of its ritornello.

    Comment by David Schulenberg — May 5, 2014 at 10:59 pm

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