Ancient Choir Unfurls Its Standard

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.

View Comments (8)

  • Thanks for publishing this review.

    It would be a shame if the impression exists that the Thomanerchor is an elite boy choir. They're fine enough, but probably a third tier operation. The Tolzer in Munich are the true elite; followed by New College, the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund and a few others; and then the Vienna Choir Boys and the Thomanerchor trailing the others.

    The Thomanerchor as you note takes a very antiquated view of the Baroque repertoire... the choir performance practice is mired mid- Fifties East German standards. Moreover, there's not much effort to actual voice training with this choir, so soloists, to extent they're even used for say, Bach cantatas, are rather weak.

    Certainly not up to these standards:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni3_a8o8vks

    Christian Immler the soloistin this clip is known to Boston audiences for his frequent appearances as an adult with the Boston Early Music Festival (he's singing in Handel's Aalmira" next Thanksgiving week).

  • I saw this comment today and as a Leipzig citizen I wish it not to remain uncommented.

    First I must say that I don't like the term "elite boy choir" because I wonder if there is one at all. The singers are regular students in the age from 10 to 18 years, recruited (mostly) in a region of a country. As far as I know the most boy choirs are comparable in composition. Nonetheless in Leipzig they are trained intensively for years before they sing with the main choir and are training farther for hours almost every day; so I can't imagine that one could practice more intensively elsewhere, which admittedly initially says nothing about the result.

    Second: having extraordinary soloists is in my view not a sensible criterion for a choirs quality. That's not wat a choir is about. For a hamonic sounding choir it could even be difficult to integrate strong soloists. Nevertheless, I find it very noteworthy that every year solo parts are performed by some young choir singers. But I think that extraordinary soloists are very rare and you will not have one every year - the linked concert recording of the Tölzer Knabenchor dates to 1985.

    Finally for me a ranking of the mentioned choires is impossible.
    It is just a matter of personal preferences and listening habits.
    The accusation of "antiquated view ..." and "mid-Fifties East German standards" does at least describe what this choir is about: a conservative approach to old choral music - at a very high level.

  • Uwe: thank you for your remarks. Please allow me to respond to your comments

    1) I have spent time around the "elite boy choirs" and arranged for them to perform in Boston; that includes the 2003 Boston Early Music Festival and the 2010 Commemoration of the start of WW II sponsored by the German Consulate and the Goethe Institute in Boston.

    2) I know the choir staff teachers and the choir masters at these choirs. They have been kind enough to share their insights and experiences with me, and that informs my comments.

    What makes certain choirs "elite" is not incessant rehearsals; it's whether the singers receive vocal pedagogy. On that score, the Thomanerchor do not receive the kind of training the Tolzers; or Dortmund; or New College receive. Consequently it shows in the quality of performance and style of presentation.

    3) I provided links to the Tolzer from the 80s simply because that was a professional, commercial recording ... any insinuations that the Tolzer performance linked to was "one off" is wrong and misleading.

    Here's a recording of the John Passion from 2012 that happened to be available on YouTube
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnTI9z3P2gk

    Some excellent samples can be found at 1:20:48; and at 1:30:00; If anything the singing standard is even HIGHER in this performance than the one with Harnoncourt.

    Just to show this is not just a Tolzer specialty, here are samples from the Knabenchor des Choralakademie Dortmund. (The Director at Dortmund, Jost Salm, was a vocal pedagogue for years with the Tolzer before leading the Dortmund choir)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPSR1eUIn_E
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQw64dLp3XA

    For good measure, here's the solo from Mahler Symphony #4 (though the video is not synced with the audio for some reason.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnaJqgo7P80

    The Thomanerchor cannot present soloists (and choristers) on this level because they don't bother training their singers with this kind technique. (The Director at Dortmund, Jost Salm, was a vocal pedagogue for years with the Tolzer before leading the Dortmund choir)

    4) You say it doesn't matter that a boy choir can produce soloists. I disagree, Uwe, and JS Bach probably disagrees too. Certainly it matters if a boy choir purports to perform Bach with even a tiny bit of fidelity to the performance practices in Leipzig in the 18th century and earlier. In that regard the Thomanerchor is stuck in the performance standards of East Germany circa 1955. This stubbornly antiquated attitude has been noted by critics at the Intelligencer.

    5) Let me conclude by noting that performers CAN be graded on technical ability and performance practices. As noted, by these criteria, the Leipzig Thomanerchor is on a third strata of achievement, which is unconscionable given the resources lavished on this institution and the choir's pedigree that stretches back centuries.

  • Uwe:

    Let me add this comment as well: The Thomanchor is free to perform according to whatever performance practices the prefer. However, please don't be indignant and insulted if commentators and critics are dismayed when the Thomanchor directors chose to ignore that past 6-70 years of scholarship and performance insights of the Baroque area that the Thomanerchor claims they specialize in.

    For this reason, the choir can't be taken seriously on an ARTISTIC level... and so critics are reduced to saying things such as: the choir is "pretty good" for a kids ensemble etc. This really creates seriously misleading impressions as to the quality and artistic integrity of the boy choirs that really do make the effort to excel and strive for high-end period performance practice.

    To that extent the Thomanchor gives boy choirs a bad reputation. The best choirs are as good as any adult ensemble on a technical level and have the advantage of performing music written for boy choirs (such as the Bach cantatas and Passions) with the performance resources for which they were originally intended.

  • Peter / Posa:

    Thank you for the interesting suggestions. I must confess that I am not professionally engaged in choral music and can not contribute to developments in the performance practice of early music in recent decades. I have gathered some amateurish choir experience and also like listening to choral music. However, the Thomaner already belong to my favorites.
    I have listened with great interest to the examples you have chosen, thank you very much. Your notes again referred specifically to solo passages, which the young singers certainly performed very well. It understand that the elite boys' choirs you mentioned put great emphasis on solo skills and strive for a more dramatic sound ideal. Whether this is by objective standards the non plus ultra, I can not say as a layman. It still seems to me a matter of taste. Different choirs simply strive for different ideals and set corresponding emphases in the rehearsals. Of course everybody is free to not like or criticize an approach. To derive a universally claimed rating in terms of quality, I find personally inappropriate.
    I did not want to express much indignation with my comment, but found that your strong determined opinion can stand a counter position.

    remark: If I write incomprehensible, google is to blame for the translation. ;-)

  • Uwe:

    Thanks again for the comments. It should be noted that the elite choirs don't sacrifice quality choral singing for solo abilities. A choir that has soloist level training will sing exceptionally well all around.

    I appreciate your comments and understand your point of view. I would encourage you to check the Tolzer and Dortmund websites and try co catch a performance sometime in Germany. The experience can be quite thrilling.

    It should be noted that these choirs could pay even closer attention to period performance practice, but unless their host impresario demands special accommodations, they will tend to cut corners a bit., understandably so in some cases. On the other hand when the Tolzers sang Schutz at the BEMF in 2003 they demanded a specially prepared organ be imported from New York that was tuned to something like A= 470... because that's the pitch Schutz choirs performed at... the effect was remarkable.

    Similarly, I requested that the Dortmund choir perform Bach Canata 150 in a 3 on a part configuration as Bach himself specified. The effect was a huge revelation--- and probably the first time since Bach conducted his own cantatas at St Thomas that these sacred works were performed with those forces, along with Bach's personal tuning system. I can tell you,informed period pracrice does change the complexion of these works and how they are perceived.

    Best wishes.

    PS. The google translation is amazingly good, Would never have guessed; however, German to English translations... not so good.

  • Posa:

    Even though we are now somewhat "off topic" - it was about the Thomaner concert - I would like to explain my personal views a little deeper.
    I've already used your remarks as an opportunity to listen to a few recordings of the Tölzer for comparison. So there really is a huge vocal difference and I can understand that there are decided friends of this Tölzer style. Personally, I do not feel it as choral sound in the usual sense, but actually as a group of soloists. I like a few pieces quite well, such as the seasonally fitting "In dulci jubilo" and other Christmas songs. However, for me this sound does not fit with any choral literature equally well, wich may also apply for the Thomaners sound. But for example, in Bach's passions I really love the harmonic balanced Thomanersound in larger cast.
    I would also like to send you a link with characteristic excerpts of what I believe to be a fine St. Matthew Passion from 2012:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxNQlgsNa3A

    This was, well aware of different performance practices, at least in the Guardian also reviewed quite well (as well as I think the Boston performance by Sudeep Agarwala above):
    https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/mar/09/st-thomas-choir-leipzig-review

    The alto soloist Stefan Kahle is a thomaner shortly after graduation. Also other adult soloists of this performance are former Thomaners. And at this point we will probably also disagree: I mean that a soloist of 12 to 14 years on a comparable level is an absolute exception. One can only marvel at the performances of the boys whose recordings you linked, but - in my mind - a grown-up professional singer has to offer a higher level.
    Why then did Bach set so small and let his Thomaners sing solos? As a layman I would think there are probably 3 possibilities: Either because he could and wanted it, or because he had to or from both something. Although he was not always satisfied with the number and quality of his Thomaners, he had at least the opportunity to train and let sing Soprani and Alti about 3 years longer than today, which is very much. Also, probably not as many professional soloists were available as today. At least he also used singing staff from the circle of acquaintances and family.
    So what performance practice would Bach want from his followers with the means of today? Or better: what preformance practice should Bachs followers offer to the audience today? To reproduce the sound of 300 years ago (as far as we know it today and can still reproduce it) can - in my mind - certainly not be the only answer. This question has been seriously considered by generations of great musicians and I think it is also important to preserve their heritage.
    In the end, the effect on the listener may play a big role, or in short, a matter of taste.

    I wish you and all Boston music lovers a nice Advent season.

  • Uwe:

    It's pointless to debate what Bach would do today. All we can do is try to recreate the performance practices and resources at his disposal when he was alive . That's the sound he was composing for. That's what Period Practice is all about. In the case of Bach, that's never been done in any serious way. So I say: Let's try it Bach's way. Then decide what style you prefer.

    As to the rest, I find it incomprehensible that anyone would prefer untrained or poorly trained voices to trained ones, either singing solos or ensembles. No one says that about orchestras... that they prefer an orchestra with string and wind players who haven't mastered their instruments. Yet this is a typical attitude when it comes to (inferior level) boy choirs.