A storied rural prep school campus on a beautiful autumn evening, a towering Gothic church bedecked with intricate dark oak wood carving and an impressive organ case. Outside, flickering candle-lit lanterns lined the walkway leading to the building’s entrance. Inside Groton School’s St. John’s Chapel last night, a capacity audience ranging in age from infants-in-arms to white-bearded country gentlemen welcomed the far-famed Windsbacher Knabenchor.
This concert was in fact the choir’s second concert of the day, having earlier performed at King’s Chapel in Boston at 12:15. These concerts were but two stops on the choir’s 9-concert tour, ranging from San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral to The Church of the Epiphany in Washington D.C.. The choir had last toured the United States 22 years ago.
The Knabenchor, literally “boy-choir,” was founded in 1946 under the direction of its founding Kapellmeister Hans Thamm. Touring with some 50 singers, about 30 who appear to be sopranos and altos, the others tenors and basses, the choir is currently led by Martin Lehmann, who assumed leadership in 2012. All the choir’s singers attend or have attended the choir’s namesake boarding school where they enjoy voice training, music theory, and daily rehearsals in addition to their other requisite educational studies. Thus, when this choir begins to sing, they bring to their audiences an admirably informed musicianship and singular style of vocal production.
A word about their sound: the Windsbacher boys produce a different sound from what Anglican boy choirs usually offer. European boy choirs tend to sing through the breath more and create a more focused and direct sonority than what is heard from the traditional British/Anglican boy choir sound. Those choristers (I was one of them years ago) sing with more breath apparent in their sound, which softens the focus but is no less beautiful in its diffuse airiness. To American ears, the less-familiar German/European boy choir sound can seem to be harsh and sometimes forcefully pushed. The Windsbacher boys display none of that. The tone this choir produces is absolutely perfect for the core German/Austrian repertoire it essays.
One final caveat—the choir’s name, “Windsbacher Boys’ Choir” is subject to misunderstanding. More accurately, it is a choir of similarly trained mixed voices, the soprano and alto parts of which are sung by boys. In this particular concert, there was never a time when the boys sang alone. Most of the works performed were set for mixed voices, sometimes divided into as many as eight parts. Several works were set for men’s chorus without soprano and altos. This allowed the audience the special treat of hearing the rich sonority of a fine Männerchor, a unique and wonderful sound tradition often encountered in Germany and Austria, but not so often here.
This ensemble sang a cappella from memory for 1 ½ hours with no intermission, with only brief pauses to allow choir members to explain what works they would perform from the imposing tour repertoire printed in the program book. The choir began with five multi-part settings for mixed chorus: Domine, ad adjuvandum me (a6) by Gottfried August Homilius, Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied (a8) by Johann Pachelbel, Deutsche Magnificat (a8) by Johann Staden, Warum toben die Heiden (a8) by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Nachtlied (a5) by Max Reger. The Staden (1581-1634) Magnificat from 1625 displayed a fascinating foretaste of Heinrich Schütz’s (1585-1672) 1669 work of the same name. Reger’s rich and prayerful Night Song possesses a startlingly rich approach to and arrival at its final cadence, and I was greatly pleased to see and hear Maestro Lehmann dwell in these moments. Common to all of these performances was an almost uncannily accurate tuning between parts and excellence of blend. These admirable traits were to carry through almost the entire evening.
Two 20th Century works were then sung in English: Willy Richter’s The Creation, set for men’s chorus, and Benjamin Britten’s early and elegant A Hymn to the Virgin. The latter, though pleasingly performed with its antiphonal call-and response, sounded not quite as idiomatic as the several multi-part German scores, which had preceded it.
Three secular German folk song settings then appeared in arrangements by Melchior Franck, Orlando de Lasso and Damiel Friderici. Of these, di Lasso’s setting in Italian of Das Echo was nigh on perfectly performed, with its persistent and tricky small ensemble echoing sounding from the other end of the room, perfectly synched.
German songs for Männerchor followed in settings by Friedrich Silcher: Wohin mit der Freud, and Franz Schubert’s melody Der Lindenbaum. The latter, impeccably sung with its superior melodic material, made more of an impression, though both performances were rich and pleasing. I was reminded of how those many years of training in the same style at the same school had paid off among these older singers, all presumably graduates of the Windsbacher Academy.
Many similar felicities continued in further elegant love songs and energetic hiking songs (yes!), culminating in Brahms’s impossibly beautiful Waldesnacht, its fragrant text by Paul Heyse redolent of the mossy-green forest floor and of thoughtful contemplation thereon. The Knabenchor’s evocation of these woods was a bit more energetic and episodic than some I’ve heard, though there is no denying that their luxuriously lingering sonorities at the drawn-out cadence of both verses were thrilling in their deep richness and securely locked-in tuning.
A cheering standing ovation greeted the last of the “programmed” music of the evening. This led to Maestro Lehmann and his choristers to offer an appropriate encore: Joseph Rheinberger’s six-part meditation Abendlied. Its text is a prayer from St. Luke: “Abide with us, for evening shadows darken, and the day will soon be over.” Here, at the end of a long day for these intrepid singers, only a tiny bit of flatting in the young sopranos betrayed a trace of fatigue. But this quickly passed, and at the music’s end we were left with that wonderful and elegantly fine-tuned Windsbacher sonority resounding in ear and memory as the audience found its way out to the moonlit evening and home. A wonderful concert. Vielen danken, Windsbacher Knabenchor, und Gute Reise!