IN: Reviews

Doubling Down on Cecilia


Nicholas White, Cecilia's conductor (file photo)
Nicholas White, Cecilia’s conductor (file photo)

Most appealing German music spanning two centuries made up the Boston Cecilia’s spring concert, April 9th at All Saints Church Brookline. The Saturday evening offering largely consisted of music for double choir in a creatively conceived and thoroughly laudable undertaking; would that more concerts had such coherent programming. Director Nicolas White’s notes were not only informative but orienting.

The most ambitious work, one of Bach’s motets for double choir, Singet dem Herrn (Sing to the Lord, S.225), began the concert. Composed for a festive occasion in Leipzig c. 1727, possibly a royal birthday, it demands much of the singers. The exuberant first movement sustained a lively buoyancy with clear, somewhat exaggerated accents on “Singet”. The second, contrasting movement alternates phrases from a German hymn in one chorus with commentary in the other. The third, an aria, dances with lively rhythm and antiphonal writing, morphing into a celebratory four-voice fugue ending with “Hallelujah.” The writing is complex and challenging.

Heinrich Schütz’s German Magnificat, with text from Luke and ending with the Gloria Patri, is a delicate piece. Schütz had absorbed the Italian polychoral style in his youth when he studied with Gabrieli. The Magnificat does not quote a psalm tone but is essentially through-composed, phrase by phrase. It is remarkable that in this late work (his swan song, according to the notes) the 84-year-old Schütz felt he could score a piece in eight parts, given that he had composed much of his oeuvre in Germany during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when he did not know from week to week which of his singers would still be alive (hence some very unusual vocal combinations in his Symphoniae sacrae). However, he never had as large a group as the Cecilia chorus. It would have been both stylistically appropriate and a nice contrast to present this delicate transparent piece with a chamber choir of 8-20 singers.

Barbara Bruns, accompanist, associate conductor, and organ soloist, played two works on the program. The first of these, Bach’s uncharacteristic Fantasia in G Major S.572, contains three sections. It begins with sparkly writing for single voice which gives way to a dramatic, chromatic middle arrayed in full chords, followed by a toccata-like finale. In the earliest copy of the manuscript, the piece gives both the title Pièce d’orgue and tempo directives in French. According to the notes, the piece reflects Bach’s trip from his native central Germany to the northern city Lüneburg. There he encountered French influences, such as the Huguenot tradition, and Georg Böhm, who incorporated French ornamentation into his Germanic compositions; it is likely the young Bach copied such scores by hand.

Bruns played the work magnificently, with clarity and ever evolving forward movement, reaching, soaring toward the next cadence and amplifying the piece’s musical meaning. The second, chordal section can be hard to sustain, for it is long, but in her hands it climbed inevitably to its culminating diminished chord that tumbles into the third and final section. The piece was well-registered on an organ that would not normally have been considered sympathetic to the style. A well-chosen pedal reed stop anchored the second and third sections admirably.

The last piece on the first half was Robert Schumann’s Vier doppelchörige gesänge (Four double choir songs), the composer’s only such work. It is infused with the unique style of Schumann’s celebrated lieder and piano works. The character of each hugely contrasting movement was perfectly captured by director and chorus, and the sound fitted these lush, Romantic songs very well, with perfect vocal warmth and luminosity. Tenors and sopranos especially shone.

The second half began with Mendelssohn’s Sechs Sprüche für das Kirchenjahr (Six Sayings or Sentences for the Church year). Although scored for double choir, the compositional style seemed as clear and immediate as four-part writing. The notes called these pieces “cathedral anthems,” a useful term for works meant to be sung in the Berlin Cathedral on high feastdays. Christmas, New Year, Ascension, Passiontide, Advent and Good Friday are the designated times. Short, very attractive, they are eminently useful for services; every church musician in the audience must have made a note of them for further consideration. Mendelssohn, while also known as a composer who also resurrected the St. Matthew Passion for performance in 19th-century Leipzig, was very much a musicologist deeply interested in choral writing techniques and styles of earlier composers. These pieces reflect that interest. The last, for Good Friday, was strikingly beautiful.

Next was an early work for organ by Brahms. The Fugue in A-flat minor is one of four works written c. 1856, the year of Schumann’s death, reportedly given as a gift to Clara. Also reportedly this is the reason the four pieces survived the composer’s penchant for destroying early material he felt did not reflect his later abilities. This introspective Fugue is intense and dark. Barbara Bruns masterfully imbued the weighty lines with tensile strength and purpose. Her use of the organ’s tonal resources underwrote the quality of the piece, sustaining the fugue’s expressive intent to its conclusion.

An early motet by Brahms followed. Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauren (Let nothing trouble you), a much-loved composition with remarkable canons, is frequently sung in translation by modern choirs. The melodic contours of this motet are reminiscent of the writing in the fugue Bruns had just played. Composed in 1856, when Brahms was 33, Opus 30 was not published until almost a decade later, at a time when his work was centered in Detmold with choral groups. The motet, given a tender performance by Cecilia, was repeated after the last programmed work.

Brahms’s Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemorative Sentences), a relatively late work for a cappella double choir, closed the official program. The program notes refer to a stylistic link to the late 16th-century Viennese school, the same influence that had molded Schütz’s style, which in itself produced a unifying thread within the evening. But the musical style is unquestionably late Brahms, with a reference this listener distinctly heard in the second movement to the German Requiem.

The concert was well-received by the audience, who stood at the end. The Cecilia chorus has much going for it. The singers are devoted, and obviously love to sing. Much musicality emerged, especially in the Romantic works. The Bach needed a little more time to settle and mature; it would be wonderful to hear again in a year or two.

The single suggestion this reviewer would make is to work on diction. At least one chorus in the area works consistently with diction coaches, and it shows. There are muscle and sinew to the German language, giving shape to musical phrasing and meaningful expression. Such mundane matters as final consonants and agreement of vowels need attention, but the spirit goes beyond that. Native speakers of German consider Americans mundfaul (mouth lazy) because we do not enunciate, tending to swallow some of our speaking sounds and slurring over others. Singing is different from speaking, of course, but mouth laziness can be evident there as well. The Cecilia chorus’s major repertory may be in English and sometimes Latin, both simpler to approach than German. This programming was definitely a departure and challenge, and the challenge to present a large program of double choir works was largely met. I salute the creativity and the accomplished musicmaking of this chorus, and happily anticipate future concerts.

Lois Regestein is a veteran local organist and currently director pro tem of the Old West Organ Society. She holds degrees from Oberlin College and the Yale School of Music.

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