Christian Erny, The Zurich Chamber Singers, OoE
Milhaud / Honegger
Stadtkirche, Winterthur, 2020-01-19
2020-01-25 — Original posting
Hinreißende Musik von Milhaud, eindrückliche Erstfassung von Honeggers “König David” — Zusammenfassung
Als Abschluss seiner Master-Ausbildung zum Orchesterdirigenten (soeben mit Auszeichnung bestanden) präsentierte der Schweizer Dirigent Christian Erny ein Konzert mit zwei Werken des 20. Jahrhunderts. Als großen “Auftakt” dirigierte er das erstklassige Orchestra of Europe (ein Ensemble, welches sich 2011 aus ehemaligen Mitgliedern des Gustav Mahler-Jugendorchesters formierte) in der hinreißend-jazzigen Musik zum Ballett “La création du monde” des Franzosen Darius Milhaud.
Das Hauptwerk des Konzert bildete der dramatische Psalm “König David” des Schweizers Arthur Honegger. Es handelte sich um die (von Honegger autorisierte) deutschsprachige Version von “Le Roi David”, op.81 in der ersten Fassung von 1921, für Harmoniemusik, Chor und Solisten. Der Chor war Christian Ernys eigener, die Zurich Chamber Singers, mit Laiensängern auf doppelte Größe aufgestockt. Die zentrale Rolle des Sprechers / Erzählers füllte Elias Reichert von der Kanzel der Winterthurer Stadtkirche—dramatisch, jedoch leider elektronisch verstärkt und reichlich indirekt, wie von der Decke herab klingend. Sehr eindrücklich Meret Roth in der Rolle der Hexe, als echt schauspielerisches Element. Und natürlich spielte wieder das Orchestra of Europe (OoE) auf höchstem Niveau!
- Concert & Review
- Milhaud: Ballet “La création du monde“, op.81
- Honegger: Symphonic Psalm “König David“, H.37
- Structure / Movements
- The Vocal Soloists
- Concluding Remarks
I was invited to attend and review a performance of “Le Roi David“, H.37 by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955). This concert, however, did not feature the big, orchestral 1923 “Symphonic Psalm” version of the composition that I witnessed in a concert early last year (2019-03-24 in Basel), but rather the original setting (incidental music, “dramatic Psalm”) from 1921. On top of that, this performance wasn’t the original, French version of the Psalm, but an adapted, German one, “König David“. For details see below.
This concert was the last one of three on consecutive days. After performances in Lucerne and Zurich, this one took place in the Stadtkirche Winterthur, a fairly big church with roman-gothic origins (the choir is from 1244, the nave from 1508 – 1538), with neo-gothic additions (windows, from 1853 – 1856).
For this concert, a podium in the center of the transept, slightly elevated from the floor of the nave, served as platform for the instrumentalists / orchestra. In Honegger’s “König David”, the choir performed in three ascending rows under the arch to the choir. I had the chance to follow the concert from the center of the organ balcony.
Conductor / Choir / Orchestra
Some 18 months ago I have reviewed a CD, on which the Swiss pianist Christian Erny (*1988) presented works by the largely unknown (or forgotten) composer Arthur-Vincent Lourié (Belarus, 1892 – 1966). Biographic information is available from that earlier posting. In parallel to pursuing a career as pianist, Christian Erny has recently completed his education as conductor. The first of these three concerts (in Lucerne) concluded his studies as diploma concert: Christian Erny earned his Masters degree in orchestral conducting, with distinction: congratulations! On top of these activities, Christian Erny has also been conducting his own choir / vocal ensemble:
The Zurich Chamber Singers
A foundation of 2015, the Zurich Chamber Singers are a professional vocal ensemble of 9 female and 10 male singers. For this concert, lay singers expanded the choir to a total of 35 (9 + 8 + 8 + 10) singers.
Orchestra of Europe
In 2011, the Swiss violinist Astrid Leutwyler teamed up with former members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, founded 1986/1987 by the late Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014), to form the Orchestra of Europe (OoE). This is an excellent, international orchestra (managed from the Zurich area). For this concert, only a small formation of the orchestra was required.
Information on the vocal soloists (Honegger’s “König David” only) is found below.
The concert featured two compositions:
- Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974): La création du monde, op.81, ballet music for small orchestra
- Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955): Symphonic Psalm “König David” (“Le Roi David“, German version), H.37 (1921/1923)
Concert & Review
Milhaud: Ballet “La création du monde”, op.81
The French composer Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974) was a member of the Groupe des Six. He created a very large oeuvre, covering genres between solo works (piano, organ), chamber music, orchestral works, vocal works, operas, incidental music and film scores (counting up to op.443!). La création du monde, op.81, is music for small orchestra, for a ballet based on a libretto by Blaise Cendrars (1887 – 1961). The ballet (not performed here as such) depicts the creation of the world based on African folk mythology. It premiered 1923 in Paris. Milhaud’s compositions show influences by Jazz and Brazilian music.
“La création du monde” is set for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets (B♭), bassoon, horn (F) 2 trumpets, trombone, piano, percussion (drum, metal block, wood block, cymbals, etc.), timpani, 2 solo violins, saxophone (alto / E♭), cello double bass.
Let me state this at the onset: an excellent performance, throughout! The orchestra was truly outstanding from beginning to end—in intonation, sound balance, rhythmic precision and agility, articulation. Christian Erny not only achieved differentiation in dynamics, but also carefully shaped arches & phrases, as well as excellent, harmonious (i.e., hardly noticeable) transitions. The acoustics appeared to offer good support for all instruments, the sound was transparent, spatially clear, but of course never dry. Erny very successfully captured the jazzy nature of the composition, the spirit in this music that is so typical of Milhaud.
There were moments in the first part when I thought that the cello was slightly underrepresented in the soundscape. However, that was clearly inherent to Milhaud’s composition / setting. Later, this impression vanished. As mentioned, the orchestra was excellent throughout. The most outstanding part in this piece was the saxophone. It was so smooth, so differentiated, often very subtle (especially in the ending!), then again so intensely singing! However, it is hard to pick instrumental highlights in such a good performance!
Initially (and also later, when the initial theme returns), the music reminds of the opening of Bach’s St.John Passion, BWV 245, with the calmly rolling accompaniment to the beautiful saxophone line. But the texture soon gets denser, more intense, trumpets and trombone inject dissonances, syncopes and faster rhythms turn out the jazz aspect, more and more with every dynamic wave. In the center, when the tempo turns faster, the music becomes truly enthralling, then again temporarily returns to a more elegiac nature. After another, jazzy climax, the movement retracts into a calm, peaceful, serene ending, with the saxophone moving into the finest possible ppp—enchanting!
Especially in such a fine performance, the listener is fascinated by the multifaceted nature of the score, the rhythmic and dynamic variety. The music is definitely interesting, entertaining, never even a bit boring. Still, I pictured that for a first-time listener, it would have been nice or preferable to have the ballet with it. The themes may be catchy. However, there is such a multitude and variety that grasping the overall structure / form may require a second or third listen. An excellent piece nevertheless!
Honegger: Symphonic Psalm “König David“, H.37
The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) composed his Dramatic Psalm “Le Roi David“, H.37, in 1921, as incidental music for a play in French by René Morax (1873 – 1963). 1923, two years later, he expanded the instrumentation to a full orchestral score. The result was the Symphonic Psalm “Le Roi David“, which I heard in a concert performance in Basel, on 2019-03-24. My concert review also contains additional information on the composition. This concert featured “König David“, a German adaptation of “Le Roi David“. The information on the instrumentation is taken from last year’s review:
The original, 1921 version asked for a small ensemble of 16 musicians: 2 flutes, oboe/cor anglais, 2 clarinets/bass clarinet, bassoon/contrabassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, 1 percussionist (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, and tam-tam), piano, harmonium, celesta and double bass. In this performance, a harmonica replaced the harmonium.
Structure / Movements
I posted the original structure in my earlier review—let me reproduce this here with the German titles / text beginnings:
Part I: David as Shepherd and Ruler of the Army
- Davids Hirtenlied (The Song of David, the Shepherd) — boys’ voice
- Psalm: Lob sei dem Herrn (Psalm: All Praise to Him) — choir
- Siegesgesang (Song of Victory) — choir
- Heereszug (March)
- Psalm: Fürchte dich nicht (Psalm: In the Lord I Put my Faith) — tenor
- Psalm: Ach, hätte ich die Flügel einer Taube (Psalm: O Had I Wings Like a Dove) — soprano
- Gesang der Propheten (Song of the Prophets) — choir
- Psalm: Gnädiger Gott, erbarm dich mein! (Psalm: Have Mercy on Me, my Lord) — tenor
- Das Lager Sauls (Saul’s Camp)
- Psalm: Gott, mein Herr, du bist mein Licht in Finsternis (Psalm: God, the Lord Shall Be my Light) — choir
- Beschwörung der Hexe von Endor (Incantation of the witch of Endor) — melodrama, witch
- Marsch der Philister (March of the Philistines)
- Die Klage von Gilboa (The Lamentations of Gilboa) — soprano, alto, choir
- Das Siegesfest (Festival Song) — choir
- Tanz vor der Bundeslade (The Dance before the Ark) — soprano, choir, narrator
Part III: David, the King and Prophet
- Gesang: Horch, mein Herz erklingt im Gesange (Song: Now my Voice in Song Upsoaring) — choir
- Gesang der Dienerin (Song of the Handmaid) — mezzosoprano
- Busspsalm (Psalm of Penitence) — choir
- Psalm: Ich bin gezeugt in Sünd’ und Not (Psalm; Behold, in Evil I Was Born) — choir
- Psalm: Ich hebe meine Augen auf zum Berge (Psalm: O Shall I Raise mine Eyes unto the Mountains? ) — tenor
- Gesang von Ephraim (The Song of Ephraim) — soprano, choir
- Marsch der Israeliten (March of the Hebrews)
- Psalm: In treuer Liebe werd’ ich mich ergeben (Psalm: In my Distress) — choir
- Psalm: In deinem Zorne, mein Gott, dem ich diene (Psalm: In this Terror, the Great God which I Adore) — choir
- Krönung Salomons (The Coronation of Solomon)
- Davids Tod (The Death of David ) — soprano, choir
The Vocal Soloists
Sara-Bigna Janett, soprano (Switzerland, member of the Zurich Chamber Singers)
Annika Langenbach, mezzosoprano (member of the Zurich Chamber Singers)
Jonas Salzer, tenor (Germany)
Meret Roth, Hexe (soprano / witch; Switzerland)
Elias Reichert, narrator (*1992, Switzerland)
Jori Grimm, boy’s voice
Before I even start commenting, let me concede that I expressed skepticism towards this project, even hesitated accepting the invitation. Why? Well, inevitably, in my mind, I made the link / connection to last year’s performance in Basel. While I trusted my ability to judge / rate this performance reasonably independently, I still feared that the earlier experience might have a negative influence here. I had two main areas of concern:
- Honegger wrote “Le Roi David” with the flow of the French language in mind. My concern was that the translation (even though apparently authorized by the composer) might alter the character of the composition (in a negative way). My argument was that the composer likely / mainly authorized the translation in order to have the work performed more often. Christian Erny argued that such reservation would equally apply to the orchestral version that I heard in Basel: it was the publisher who pushed for a bigger orchestral setting (also for reasons of general acceptance). Hongger himself apparently preferred the original, smaller setting that was selected for Winterthur.
- My second concern was about the narrator: not only would this now be in German, but it seemed impossible that the actor in Winterthur would come close to the performance that Örs Kisfaludy presented in Basel.
With the many “numbers” in this composition, I decided not to describe the performance in chronological sequence. Rather, I’ll discuss the performance by the various roles (especially the vocal ones), more or less in the order of their appearance.
Orchestra of Europe
On top of what I already stated with the first composition, I have very little to add on the performance of the orchestra: it was top-notch, virtually flawless—simply excellent. In the entire performance, there were at most one or two instances when a wind instrument took a very short moment (hardly noticeable) to be in tune with the others. But other than that, the orchestra was as good as one could possibly wish for, following Christian Erny in his intentions, excellent particularly in all the wind instruments, brilliant in the brass.
The Zurich Chamber Singers
One could sure tell that the choir’s preparation, its joint abilities were excellent in terms of intonation, coordination, diction, articulation, language. The voices were homogeneous, flexible / agile enough for fast passages / motif. The choir had ample power to add drama and expression where needed, also in a big venue such as this one. Volume, drama and endurance were certainly impressive in the central climax, the big choral No.16.
I noted, however, that doubling the size of the choir by adding the same number of (more or less) lay singers essentially defeated the character of a professional choir. I can’t pinpoint why, but overall, the sound of the choir (e.g., the vocal timbre) in a way seemed closer to that of an excellent lay choir than that of a professional chamber choir. It seems like a 50% proportion of professional singers is not enough to make these prevail in the end result. And I wondered whether the smaller “professional core” of the choir wouldn’t have been at least as effective, if not better, especially in connecting with the audience.
I should also state that in this acoustic environment, the choir was often hard to understand without consulting the booklet. Was that an effect of the acoustics / reverberation, the distance from the audience, deficiencies in the adaptation of the German language to the “French melodic / rhythmic flow”, of a tiny bit of fuzziness introduced by the non-professional part of the choir?
Christian Erny, Direction
Christian Erny not only proved that he knows the score inside out: his conducting also was precise very clear—and a healthy (perfectly adequate and suitable) mix of orchestral / instrumental conducting and choir direction. The requirements of the latter are (typically) vastly different from those for an orchestra. Here, I noted subtle changes in “conducting gesture style” as soon as the choir was involved. I was also please to note that Christian Erny remained concise, if not often inconspicuous in his role—no unnecessary big gestures, let alone “maestro theater” that would merely interfere with the effect of the music.
Elias Reichert, Narrator
I mentioned advance concerns whether the narrator would be able to withstand a comparison with the earlier performance in Basel. He didn’t quite—though that was only partially a question of the artist’s qualities. The idea of having the narrator talk from the rostrum may seem tempting, obvious, logical. However, the church is fairly big, Elias Reichert was talking through a microphone, and the loudspeakers high above the audience (and the reverberation) in the nave made the voice sound very indirect, diffuse, and impossible to locate.
The actor’s language and diction was just fine and clear. However, that clarity was partially lost through microphone and distant loudspeakers. Without tracing the text in the booklet, not all of the recitation was clearly understandable. This was especially problematic when occasionally he retracted in to soft, intimate recitation / text, which ended up inefficient to the listener.
A Partially Lost Effort?
Initially, I had the impression of “mere recitation”, but as the plot turned more dramatic, Reichert added drama through gestures, and by rising the volume. Sadly, in my opinion this was insufficient to compensate for the physical distance and the added technical indirection. The physical distance also rendered some of his gestures, his acting inefficient, at least relative to Örs Kisfaludy in Basel, whose French (impaired by a broken, rough voice) may not always have been entirely clear, but whose strong acting and facial mimics right in the center of the scene / the nave more than compensated for these deficiencies. Here, I don’t want to rate the narrator’s performance, as the technical / physical obstacles render an “objective” judgement unfair (I want to rate the listener’s factual experience, not a projected performance in an ideal environment).
I could summarize the above with the statement that in my opinion, unamplified acting in the center of the scene would likely have been more effective than the “indirect” setting in this venue. True, in this church, this would require an actor with a big voice—and/or with “extreme” stage presence…
Jori Grimm, David as Shepherd
It takes a lot of guts for a boy to be the first singer among a team of professional adults—and Honegger’s writing is rather challenging in the intonation! Jori Grimm’s performance was respectable, his voice still heavily in the stage of formation. I wonder, though, if it wouldn’t have been preferable / more effective to have a woman soprano (or alto) perform this short, 1-minute role with simple, vibrato-less voicing. I don’t think Honegger necessarily implied a boy singer (the score reads contralto solo, after all).
Jonas Salzer, Tenor
A clear, lyrical voice—sufficient, but not exceedingly big, maybe lacking some power, brilliance and “ping” in parts of the range, especially in the lower range, but also at the high end. However, in No.21, close to the end, his voice rose to impressive volume and intensity.
Sara-Bigna Janett, Soprano
This singer has sufficient volume, a clear, well-projecting timbre. She was (sometimes) bordering on “too dramatic” in her vibrato, for my taste. I should say that Honegger’s solo parts are highly exposed (almost throughout) and rather challenging in the intonation. One could occasionally sense these intonation challenges, not just in the soprano part.
In No.14, the duet with the mezzosoprano, I found her singing substantially better, stronger, more impressive. In No.15, though, where she is singing on top of the female choir voices, slightly more volume / projection would have been desirable.
★★★ / ★★★½
Meret Roth, Witch
Excellent, highly impressive and dramatic not only in her acting, the gestures, the facial mimics, but also in her singing / recitation: clearly the biggest, strongest voice among the soloists, almost scary to the audience: brilliant, equally in the clarity of her diction / language!
Annika Langenbach, Mezzosoprano
On average, and Meret Roth excluded, I found Annika Langenbach’s mezzosoprano voice the strongest, most impressive among the solo singers: a full, warm timbre, adequately dramatic, harmonious in the vibrato, well-balanced / equilibrated across the range, easily projecting in this environment.
A truly outstanding orchestral performance from beginning to end, from percussion to woodwinds to (particularly) brass. Excellent and firm direction by Christian Erny. An impressive choir performance (for a semi-professional ensemble). An excellent (young) narrator—in a setting that didn’t really allow him to perform to his fullest potential. Good vocal soloists—particularly (even excellent) for the dramatic role of the witch. And, last but not least: lots of beautiful music, culminating in the central climax, the “Dance before the Ark” (No.16), and of course in the “brassy” concluding apotheosis after David’s death.
Finally: to come back to my initial skepticism: last year’s concert performance in Basel and this one were hardly comparable, my skepticism pointless in the end. The performance in Basel had its main strength in the role of the narrator. This performance was better in the choir performance (albeit in German), hard to beat in the part of the orchestra, and definitely better in the role of the witch. Also, as this was the smaller, early version of the score, whereas Basel featured the larger 1923 orchestral setting, there were fundamental differences between the two performances and their impact. Last, but not least, only the smaller setting in Winterthur enabled the listener really to appreciate the performance and the qualities of the conductor, Christian Erny. Thanks for a truly interesting and rewarding concert experience!