In much the same way the Vienna Philharmonic constituted the particular sound Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler wrote for, Leipzig’s Thomanerchor is the ensemble at the core of German Baroque choral music. In many ways, it is even more impressive: the children’s choir that performed in NEC’s Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon as part of the Celebrity Series’s 2017-18 season stands as the latest contingent in a tradition going back more than eight centuries. Johann Sebastian Bach led and wrote music for the Thomanerchor while he was cantor of the Church of St. Thomas, Leipzig from 1723 until his death in 1750. Before him, Johann Kuhnau composed for and conducted them, and this is the group to which Heinrich Schütz dedicated his Geistliche Chormusik. Before them, the Thomanerchor introduced Northern Europe to the Italian Baroque under Johann Hermann Schein’s music and leadership. The musical tradition that took to the stage at Jordan Hall is much older than the Protestant Reformation which it is celebrating, and has been at the heart of Lutheran music and worship for the past 500 years.
Under the leadership of Gotthold Schwarz (the 17th Thomaskantor since Bach held the post) the 44-member choir, made up of boys and young men aged 6 to 18, showcased over a slender hour, German Baroque choral masterpieces that were composed for them. Schutz’s two-choir Jauchzet dem Herren (SWV 36) opened, followed by Schein’s Herr Gott, du unser Zuflucht bist and the five-part madrigal Ich bin jung gewesen. The first set, paying homage to Bach and Mendessohn, culminated in Bach’s Furchte dich nicht (BWV 228). Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of course, inspred the Bach revival in the 19th century. Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229) led the way to three sacred works by Mendelssohn: the Kyrie and Heilig from the 1846 Deutsche Liturgie, commissioned for the Berlin Cathedral, paired with a setting of Luther’s text Mitten wir im Leben sind (Op. 23, No. 3). The afternoon concluded wtih three selections from Schutz’s Geistliche Chormusik (Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt SWV 380, Verleih uns Frieden SWV 372, and Gib unsern Fursten SWV 373), and Bach’s Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226).
An uncharitable view of Sunday’s performance might see the Thomanerchor trapped in the amber of its 18th-century glory. Is its unadventurous programming the product of a fundamentally conservative institution that carefully curates its contribution to the Western choral tradition? The ensemble’s discography rarely ventures past 19th-century German choral music, and when it does, it never leaves German borders. But there is a diligence in this reiteration through the very important oeuvre that was composed with the group’s sound and training in mind: what may appear to be a conservative, scattered mélange of 17th– and 18th-century Northern European choral polyphony for anyone else, is, for the Thomanerchor, a celebration of the composers and the influences that established the prominent place the Thomaskirche and its cantors and choir occupies in music history.
Inevitably, a choir with this background sings with a confident sound. Crisp, well-blended voices shaped musical lines adorned with impeccable enunciation. No matter how labyrinthine the counterpoint or extended the harmony, tuning and precision never faltered. In the overall effect of deceptive simplicity, pristine inner voices tastefully balanced in dense choral textures all lightly supported by a spare continuo of cello (Hartmut Becker) and chamber organ (Stefan Altner). Bach’s motets took on an ethereal lightness in Sunday’s approach; melismae were well-shaped and sensitively scoped to the modest amplitude of the children’s choir. Mendelssohn’s sacred pieces broke forth airy, and pristine; Mitten wir im Leben sind remained restrained and confident. Some sacrifices resulted from these stylistic choices, of course. The meticulous Thomaners remained agnostic to large swings in dynamics or grand dramatic flourishes. This was particularly evident in Schein’s madrigal, or the selections from Schutz’s Geistliche Chormusik; the choir appeared cold and marmoreal where the modern ear may have craved more excitement and drama, but these matters of taste pale in light of the Thomaner’s careful mastery.
In addition to the choral works on the program, tenors Maximilian Müller, and Henrik Weimann duetted with poise in Schutz’s Eins bitte ich vom Herren (SWV 294) and Schein’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Elias Unger’s translucent, immaculate soprano lent an austere innocence to Bach’s Gott lebet noch (BWV 461); Nathanael Vorwergk performed Bach’s Dir, dir, Jehova, will ich singen (BWV 452) with charismatic assurance. A warm standing ovation from a crowded Jordan Hall was rewarded by two encores: Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino, followed by Bach’s four-part setting of Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten.
See related interview HERE.
Sudeep Agarwala is a scientist by day and an amateur musician who has performed with many choral groups in and around Boston. He has been writing for the Intelligencer since 2011.