Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Risurrezione from a new arts trust at St Mary of the Angels

By , 14/05/2011

La Musica – Sacra I
Böhm: Præludium, Fugue and Postlude J.S. Bach: ‘Komm süsses kreuz’ Biber: Crucifixion, Resurrection and Assumption sonatas Bruhns: ‘Mein herz ist bereit’ Buxtehude: ‘Singet dem herrn’
Krieger: ‘Ihr Christen, freuet euch’

The Historical Arts Trust: Gregory Squire (baroque violin), Pepe Becker (soprano), David Morriss (bass), Robert Oliver (viola da gamba), Douglas Mews (harpsichord and chamber organ)

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Saturday, 14 May 2011, 7pm

The Historical Arts Trust (THAT) is a new organisation, launched at the end of llast month, presenting four concerts this year under the title ‘La Musica’ (though despite that, and this concert’s title ‘Risurrezione’, the music was all German and Austrian, not Italian), in succession to the Musica Sacra concert series organised by Robert Oliver over the last ten years. Only two of the items, both vocal, could be considered well-known. As the name implies, the Trust intends to promote historical dance and other art forms, not only music.

The performers were all well-seasoned at their crafts – experts, in fact – and all have been busy lately in other performances. The novel feature of this concert was the fact that Gregory Squire had no fewer than four fiddles with him, given four different tunings. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern (ennobled for his services to music) was a 17th century composer who delighted in employing scordatura; i.e. the re-tuning of the violin. This was not in order to give the violinist a headache, in having to play the notes on the page in different places on the fingerboard from usual. The technique of tuning the strings differently, and in different arrangements, alters the sound markedly.

The three of Biber’s sonatas played in this performance each employed a different tuning. The remaining works Squire played in, in a very busy evening for him, used the standard tuning, hence the fourth violin. Biber is not often heard – although I have an LP from the early 1980s with Peter Walls’s Baroque Players playing a piece of his, and as I write this review, RNZ Concert is broadcasting ‘Chamber Music from Lincoln Center’, in which a Biber violin sonata is being performed, one in which the violin imitates animals and birds. Biber was considered a violin virtuoso in his day; Gregory Squire can’t be far behind.

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians says of Biber’s use of this technique: “Bringing some of the strings closer together in pitch makes possible or simplifies the production of the most resonant intervals and chords… The result is a smoother, more easily flowing, richer-sounding polyphony than is possible with conventional tuning. … Mystery Sonata no.11… was planned for a highly resonant performance in octaves, each octave stopped across two strings by one finger.” The audience experienced these effects.

The programme opened with Douglas Mews playing the harpsichord in the Böhm work. This, one of two items on the programme once attributed to J.S. Bach, was no rote reproduction of the notes on the page, nor ‘fork on a bird-cage’ sound. It was an attractive work, sensitively performed.

Bach genuinely composed the next item, ‘Komm, süsses kreuz’, a bass aria from St. Matthew Passion. David Morriss sang, with continuo of viola da gamba and organ. While the recitative lacked a little in ensemble and tone, the aria developed well. It was sung with feeling and evenness of tone throughout its quite wide range. I found the organ, using flutes only, a little light behind the voice and viola da gamba.

Next came the first of the Biber sonatas – ‘The Crucifixion’ Sonata X. The harpsichord accompaniment was not very audible, but perhaps it was sufficient for a continuo part. This was very skilled violin playing. The sonata became fast, and was rhythmically exciting. The difficulties of playing while reading notes different from the usual for the various strings were certainly not obvious. The sonata featured double-stopping, and its ending was fast and furious, featuring the earthquake that followed Christ’s crucifixion in a most evocative manner.

Gottfried Henrich Stötzel is now credited with the composition of the well-known aria long attributed to Bach: ‘Bist du bei mir’. (All the composers in the concert except Stötzel and Krieger were B’s.) Soprano Pepe Becker sang it, with organ and viola da gamba continuo. It was sung simply, in a straightforward manner, quite beautifully. Here again, I found the organ a little quiet in the continuo, compared with the sound of the viola da gamba.

Biber returned in the form of ‘The Resurrection’ Sonata XI. The effect of the re-tuning was more obvious here than in the first sonata performed. There was a marked contrast between the mellow lower strings and the more strident upper strings. The slow, discreet organ accompaniment consisted of seldom-changing chords, i.e. long pedal points (not literally; the small chamber organ is played with the performer standing.)

The viola da gamba begins the second movement with a chorale melody, on which the violin then plays variations, interspersed with repetitions of the chorale (Easter hymn ‘Surrexit Christus hodie’) itself, in octaves, possible because of the re-tuning (see note from Grove, above). Again there was very intricate work for the violin, which was expertly executed. A surprise towards the end was all the performers (except the very occupied violinist) singing the chorale. In the final iteration of the chorale there were delightful key modulations.

Bruhns’s cantata Mein herz ist bereit for bass, violin and continuo was very varied in the treatment of the words, though I thought David Morriss’s pronunciation of ‘bereit’ a little strange. However, this was a piece making great demands on the singer, to which he rose admirably. The words in the first verse which translate as “I will sing and give praise” were very ornate; the composer certainly had a very competent singer in mind. The next verse began “Awake, my glory:. Indeed, anyone would have to wake with the amount of sound declaimed rapidly in one’s ear! The bass’s sound filled the church (which is more than the audience did).

The third verse, “I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people”, featured a lovely violin part (presumably with standard tuning). The final voice, “Be thou exalted, O God”, was followed by very decorated “Amen’; the whole well sung by Morriss. In this work, I felt the balance was better between the instruments. The work was notable for great sound, rhythm and accuracy. The organ came into its own, but was never too much for the other performers.

After the interval came a work by Buxtehude, that Danish-German composer beloved of organists: Singet dem Herrn. Pepe Becker sang, with violin and continuo. The joyous first verse was preceded by a lovely violin introduction. The voice part began low in the register, which we don’t associate with Pepe Becker; she revealed a fine, rich tone. From there, soon there were florid phrases in the upper register, skilfully managed, as always, while the violin part was very exciting.

Then there was a slower calmer pace with lilting passages in the second verse to the words “The Lord declared his salvation”. More vocal gymnastics followed, leading to a lively final verse.

The third Biber piece was ‘The Assumption of Mary into Heaven’ Sonata XIV. Gregory Squire used yet another of his four violins. A wonderful, full-toned opening with the continuo revealed a very rhythmic dance-like piece in ¾ time, lots of finger-work for the violinist, incorporating left-hand and right-hand pizzicato and a ground bass from the viola da gamba, also incorporating a pizzicato section, and variations for violin and organ over the ground. After a slow beginning, more and more rapid ornamentation gave this item the ‘wow’ factor.

Finally, a cantata from little-known Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), only a few of whose many works survive: ‘Ihr Christen, freuet euch’. This time, both singers were involved, with violin and continuo. Some verses were solo, while others were duets.

In the fourth verse, David Morriss’s excellent low notes were rich. Violin obbligato passages were ecstatic, especially in the instrumental interlude between verses 4 and 5, the former being a delightful duet. The fifth and final verse featured great purity of the harmonies and melodic lines, and decoration of the latter on the violin and viola da gamba during the pause after the vocal lines, and before and during the Amen, which brought this charming work to a conclusion.

Concert-goers were presented with an attractively produced printed programme. I’m not sure why this concert was timed to start so early; perhaps there were logistical reasons. As someone who lives some way out of town, I find it a challenge to the stomach to have to rush to a concert in the city that commences before 8pm.

It was a great evening of highly professional performances of difficult and mostly rare baroque music, with a couple of more familiar arias thrown in.

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