Florian Helgath, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Orchester vom See
Franz Schubert / Fritz Stüssi

Kirche St.Jakob, Zurich, 2019-05-10

3.5-star rating

2019-05-13 — Original posting



Introduction

Less than a month ago, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy) invited me to review a concert they performed at the Kirche St.Jakob (St.Jacob’s Church), a venue very close to Zurich’s center, and frequently used for concerts. That concert on 2019-04-17 featured Bach’s St.John Passion. This was a cooperation with the Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich, the city’s biggest and most prominent formation for historically informed performances.

I was happy to be invited again for another concert after just a few weeks, in the same location as last time, the Kirche St.Jakob. And again, the choir performed under the competent direction of its choir master, Florian Helgath (*1978).

Orchestra: Orchester vom See

One major difference from the last concert was with the orchestra: not Orchestra la Scintilla this time, but the Orchester vom See (“Orchestra from the Lake”). That orchestra was founded in 2011 by Ulrich Stüssi, grandson of Fritz Stüssi (1874 – 1923), the composer of the oratorio in the second half of this concert. According to their Website, the Orchester vom See consists of around 50 professional musicians, plus additional members (strings, wind instruments) still in their education (average age across the ensemble: 29). The orchestra serves two main purposes / goals:

  • An “entry port” into the profession of orchestra musician for young instrumentalists
  • caring for, performing, and promoting the oeuvre of the composer Fritz Stüssi.

The Website states that the orchestra typically pursues two concert projects every year (with performances in the Zurich area, but also across Switzerland). Each of these concerts (one on spring, one in autumn) features at least one composition by Fritz Stüssi—just like this one:

Program

There were three instances of this concert:

  • 2019-05-08: Winterthur (Stadtkirche)
  • 2019-05-09: Bern (Französische Kirche)
  • 2019-05-10: Zürich, Kirche St.Jakob

Soloists

There were five vocal soloists in this performance:

Both Fritz Stüssi’s oratorio, as well as Schubert’s Mass in E♭ major require four singers (SATB). There is one exception: the Credo in Schubert’s Mass asks for an additional tenor, for which Florian Helgath resorted to Tiago Oliveira, a member of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie.

Setting, etc.

As already in the last concert, the choir was kind enough to reserve me and my wife two central first-row balcony seats, so I could take photos. All photos (except for the press photos) are the author’s (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Schubert: Mass No.6 in E♭ major, D.950

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) completed six masses. The Mass No.6 in E♭ major, D.950, a missa solemnis, was finished in 1828; it premiered only in 1829, the year after Schubert’s death. The six parts and their sections have the following annotations:

  1. Kyrie, Andante con moto, quasi Allegretto
  2. Gloria, Allegro moderato e maestoso
    • Domine Deus, Andante con moto
    • Quoniam tu solus sanctus, Allegro moderato e maestoso
    • Cum sancto Spiritu, Moderato
  3. Credo, Moderato
    • Et incarnatus est, Andante
    • Et resurrexit, Moderato
  4. Sanctus, Adagio
    • Osanna in excelsis, Allegro ma non troppo
  5. Benedictus, Andante
    • Osanna in excelsis, Allegro ma non troppo
  6. Agnus Dei, Andante con moto
    • Dona nobis pacem, Andante
    • Agnus Dei, Andante
    • Dona nobis pacem, Andantino

The Performance — Orchestra

Above, I quoted the orchestra’s Website in stating that the ensemble consists of “50 professional musicians, plus additional instrumentalists (strings, wind instruments) still in their musical education. Many of the professional musicians almost certainly are music teachers—not orchestra musicians in their main profession. And most definitely, even if they are orchestra musicians, none of the musicians makes a living from playing in this orchestra. That makes this a semi-professional orchestra at best. With this, I don’t mean to disqualify the orchestra, but there are limitations to what one can expect from such an ensemble.

Certainly, it would be unfair to expect a performance close to that of an orchestra such as the Orchestra la Scintilla, or any “truly professional” ensemble. In the latter, the majority of the musicians spend a major portion of their working time with that specific orchestra. However, here, the orchestra cooperated (and most likely hired) a highly professional choir. It’s probably the best choir that we have in Switzerland. And one that competes with vocal ensembles at the forefront of professional choirs on an international scale. Therefore (and because the choir plays a central role in both compositions in this concert), I’m applying the “professional ruler” here…

What does this mean?

In comparison to truly professional orchestras, one can see both positive and possibly negative aspects in formations such as the Orchester vom See:

  • Concert performances such as this one are never routine, but require a conscious effort by all members: there is no leaning back in the chair, and playing out of pure routine. There is no space for elder members (as one can occasionally still observe in established mid-class orchestras) who perform laid back, possibly even expressing boredom at a piece they have performed dozens, if not hundreds of times. Quite to the contrary:
  • It’s a relatively young orchestra. The musicians are motivated, “unspoilt”, fresh, which may transpire through the performance;
  • On the other hand, the lack of experience requires a bigger effort, more endurance in the preparations to a concert (though, the extra rehearsals will help familiarizing with the works).
  • Also, young orchestra members in their twenties are typically in an exuberant, wild phase of their lives, which may cause distraction, makes it harder to control the orchestra. Here, one could see this in the inevitable chit-chattering that started merely seconds after the end of a piece. Is this maybe also a phenomenon with today’s youngsters who are distracted by electronic media, and less likely to be impressed by the music that they were just playing?

The Outcome

Schubert’s Mass in E♭ major is not a virtuosic orchestral showpiece. Nevertheless, it is a major work also for the orchestra, and it has its challenges. Superficially, the orchestra performed really well: coordination was not an issue at all, the voices, even the orchestra as a whole sounded coherent. The one aspect that may require extra attention is in the occasional intonation issues, primarily in the brass, was well as (rarely) the low woodwinds. It may be quite a task for a principal conductor to keep such an orchestra under control. It definitely is even harder for a guest conductor. Sure, Florian Helgath had tremendous help through the very attentive concertmaster, Stefan Tarara, one of the most actively “co-conducting concertmasters” that I ever encountered. He was a joy to watch (and no, not distracting at all).

Still, even with the concertmaster’s help, Florian Helgath had to devote considerable effort in keeping the orchestra “in line”. On the surface, that worked really well. However, the limitations of the orchestra still had their impact on the performance: it seemed hard, often impossible to apply any noticeable amount of agogics (rhythmic swaying at the level of bars or motifs) or rubato (tempo variations within a larger phrase, etc.).

This was most obvious in Schubert’s fugues (of which there are several!). These sounded overly schematic, static, lacking rhythmic flexibility. In line with that, Florian Helgath’s conducting style was even rather rigid, schematic, as soon as the orchestra was involved, for obvious reasons.

Dynamics

Another area where I noted limitations was in the dynamics: the strings did well, they sounded homogeneous, coherent across the dynamic range. However, the wind instruments are much more of a challenge in playing really softly, some might even claim that it is impossible to execute a ppp on an oboe. Still, where the violins performed a pp with good sonority, the wind instruments sometimes seemed to lack dynamic refinement. One early example in the performance was at the very beginning, where the pp in the wind instruments was mp at best, if not mf. And also the re-entry of the woodwinds after the first “Kyrie” in the choir wasn’t p, sounded rather coarse, lacking subtlety and differentiation.

The acoustics may have helped exposing weaknesses in the wind section. On the other hand, the timpani could often have been more prominent, more poignant (despite the use of compact stick heads), e.g., in the Credo, at “Et resurrexit“. Their positioning half-way under the rostrum probably didn’t help, too.

The Performance — Vocal, Direction

Choir

What “saved” the Schubert performance was—not surprisingly—the choir, which plays a central role in this composition. The 39 singers (10 + 10 + 9 + 10, a virtually ideal balance) once more presented exceptional homogeneity and quality in sound, a dynamic range from a very subtle, but still sonorous ppp up to an astounding ff / fff. And the singers carefully followed the composer’s dynamic annotations, crescendo / decrescendo forks, etc.—an exemplary performance at that. Also, of course, balance, coordination and intonation, the diction, the flexibility, the clarity in coloraturas was exceptional. Sure, in the Schubert Mass, the ensemble was barely facing challenges. If the fugues sounded rather schematic, or if the performance overall lacked flexibility and refinement, this wasn’t the choir’s fault, see above.

It was the Zürcher Sing-Akademie which presented the real highlight within the Schubert Mass, in the Sanctus. It was highly impressive in the sonority of the p, almost overwhelming in the ff and fff. And those crescendi, and even more so the decrescendi! OK, the former may be easy, but the latter frequently turn into stumbling blocks with lay choirs, where the volume just collapses too early.

There was one single moment when the choir intonation felt a tad shaky, in the Agnus Dei, when the basses start with “miserere” at D-C-BB: I attribute this to the large distance between the bass singers and the three double basses at the far right of the orchestra. That was merely a moment. Together with the soloists, the choir concluded the mass with an excellent performance in the final fugue and Andantino closure.

Soloists

The soloists play a minor role in this mass. The first solos (T1/T2, S) only appear in the Credo. In their volume, the character of their voices, the two tenors and the soprano (Hannah Morrison) were a harmonious ensemble. Maybe Fabio Trümpy‘s voice was sometimes bordering on too much drama, especially in the top range. In general, though, he seemed to save his voice for the second part of the concert? The Osanna (along with its identical twin after the Benedictus) clearly was the best of the fugue performance in the mass. It is short, and Helgath carefully crafted the dynamics in the theme.

The Benedictus includes two segments for solo quartet (SATB), mostly p, with the orchestral accompaniment in pp. The choir mirrors these segments. With the choir, the volume in the accompaniment was just fine (the choir has plenty of reserves in the dynamics, after all). However, especially in the second solo segment, the orchestral accompaniment should have been softer (Schubert asks for pp in the woodwinds), giving more space to the solo voices. The latter—as different as they are in their characteristics—formed an amazingly homogeneous, well-balanced quartet.

The Dona nobis pacem features another solo quartet, with sufficient passages to identify Krešimir Stražanac‘s full-sounding bass voice, its warm, sonorous timbre. Also Ingeborg Danz‘ alto showed an impressive (though not overwhelming) volume, and a nice and characterful (somewhat “earthy”?) lower register. Hannah Morrison’s voice is brilliant in the high register, reaching up to B♭ without major effort. Still, in the two instances where Schubert offers the high B♭ with the alternative an octave below, that alternative may have been the more harmonious, less poignant option?

Direction

Florian Helgath primarily is choir director. However, this wasn’t a restriction here. Rather, is seemed to be the orchestra imposing limitations here. This was most evident in the fugues, which felt rather heavy (the tempo probably at the lower limit), static, etc.

In general, Helgath—conducting without baton—was clearly focusing on the choir, with most of the detail in his gestures, shaping, crafting the choir’s dynamics, articulation and phrasing. The bulk of his work, of course, happened in the preparation of the choir. It is impossible to tell how much spontaneity and flexibility he allows for in the moment of a performance. Certainly, I had the impression that Helgath avoided experimenting with spontaneous “features” such as agogics, rubato, etc., when the orchestra was involved.

Overall Rating: ★★★½

This performance didn’t give the Zürcher Sing-Akademie a chance to demonstrate its full potential.


Fritz Stüssi: Oratorio “Vergehen und Auferstehen” (1914)

The Composer

Fritz Stüssi (1874 – 1923), son of a school teacher, grew up in Zurich. After high school, he attended Zurich Music School (Zürcherische Musikschule), where he studied piano, organ, and composition. One of his teachers was the Swiss composer, conductor and violinist Friedrich Hegar (1841 – 1927). After concluding his studies in Zurich, Fritz Stüssi went to Berlin, where he entered the Royal University of Music (königliche Hochschule für Musik), then under the direction of Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). He studied piano, counterpoint, chamber music, and composition, the latter under Max Bruch (1838 – 1920).

In late 1895, returned to Switzerland, where he started working as teacher for piano and music theory. Not much later, he accepted the post as choir master with a women’s choir in Zurich. In 1898, Fritz Stüssi moved to Wädenswil at the southern shore of the Lake Zurich. Within very short time, he became the dominating figure in music life all around the southern part of the Lake Zurich. He was choir master with numerous choirs, even in places farther away, such as Uster. Besides that, he also worked as organist. When Wädenswil opened a concert hall in 1909, he started offering concerts, conducing 4 – 5 subscription events every winter. And Fritz Stüssi also directed the Academic Choir at Zurich University.

Clearly, Fritz Stüssi was taking on too much. Undetected by his surroundings, his health must have suffered, and he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1923, aged just 49.

Oeuvre

Fritz Stüssi left behind an oeuvre of around 130 compositions, including, among numerous others,

  • two oratorios
  • a cantata
  • motets
  • songs for choir
  • Lieder
  • chorale preludes
  • music for string orchestra
  • concerto movements
  • a few pieces for piano.

Fritz Stüssi (1901 – 1981), son of Fritz Stüssi, the composer, was a construction engineer and professor, also headmaster of the ETH in Zurich. The composer’s son deposited Fritz Stüssi’s legacy in Zurich’s Central Library (Zentralbibliothek, ZB). It was only the composer’s grandson, Ulrich Stüssi (*1945), successful industrial entrepreneur, who—as second career, so to say—turned towards music again. He discovered his grandfather’s oeuvre in the Central Library. He was amazed at the quality of these compositions, especially the oratorio “Vergehen und Auferstehen“, Fritz Stüssi’s signature work. 2011, he founded the Orchester vom See, not the least for the purpose of reviving that oratorio.

A first “rediscovery performance” took place in 2014 in the Zurich area, with a lay choir and the Orchester vom See. 2016, Ulrich Stüssi conducted performances of the oratorio in Basel and Zurich, with the same orchestra. This was already with the Zürcher Sing-Akademie. Audio tracks of the oratorio are available at the Orchestra’s Website.

The Oratorio

Fritz Stüssi conducted the first performance of his Oratorio “Vergehen und Auferstehen (Transience and Resurrection), a “Fantasy in the Form of an Oratorio”, in 1914, in Wädenswil. The work consists of two sections: part I is around 20′, part II around 10′.

Part I

1. Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras (B)
2. Aber du Herr hast von Anfang (choir)
3. Was aber ist der Mensch (B)
4. Sünde lieget auf uns von Anbeginn (T)
5. Vater unser (Choir) by Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621)
6. So spricht der Herr (A)
7. Weh uns! Wir wandeln in Finsternis (choir)
8. Herr hilf mir, denn das Wasser gehet mir bis an die Seele (T)
9. Der du mich tröstest in Angst (choir)
10. Ich will euch trösten (A)
11. Er war rein, doch trug er eure Schuld (SATB)
12. Wenn ich nur dich habe (choir)
For all flesh is as grass (1 Peter 1:24)
In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations (Hebrews 1:10)
But what is man?
Sin is upon us from the beginning
Our Father in heaven (Lord’s Prayer, with Doxology)
So says the Lord
Woe us! We walk in darkness
O God! For the waters have come up to my neck (Psalm 69:2)
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness (Psalm 4:2)
I will comfort you (Isaiah 66:13)
He was pure, but he bore your guilt
Whom have I in heaven but you? (Psalm 73:25)

Part II

1. Nun aber Christus auferstanden ist (T)
2. Ewige Freude (SATB)
3. Preiset ihn und jauchzet (choir)
4. Nun fürchtet euch nicht mehr! (A)
5. Selig sind die Toten (choir)
6. Ja, der Geist spricht (A)
7. Ja, der Geist spricht (choir)
8. Jerusalem, du hochgebaute Stadt (boys’ choir)
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20)
Eternal joy
Celebrate, rejoice
Now do not be afraid anymore
Blessed are the dead (Revelation 14:13)
Yea, the Spirit speaks (Revelation 14:13)
Yea, the Spirit speaks
Jerusalem, Thou City Fair and High (German Christian hymn)

The concluding No.8 in Part II, for boys’ choir, was not included in this performance, but only in the first concert in Bern, on 2019-05-08. Stüssi used texts from a variety of sources (some from the Christian Bible, some not). I wasn’t able to identify all of the sources.

The Performance

Note that I don’t have a score—I’m merely describing what I heard, i.e., I can’t tell whether dynamics, tempo changes, etc. are in the score, or whether they are the result of artistic freedom. What counts in the end, I think, is the listener’s experience.

(Part I) Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras (Bass) … Aber du Herr hast von AnfangWas aber ist der Mensch

The introduction to the first solo evolves from a soft murmuring in the basses. The music gradually accelerated, whereby the trombones seemed a little impatient. In the aftermath, I think that these were merely start-up issues.

Here now, Krešimir Stražanac‘s full-sounding bass voice came to full bearing. Not only was the vocal part the ideal fit for his voice, but also the musical gestures placed me right in the world of Brahms’ Requiem, and it sure instantly captured the audience! The subsequent choir (albeit more Mendelssohnian than Brahms-like) continued in that spirit, forming a grandiose, passionate opening. The choir, too, seemed carried by this music, into a big, almost festive climax, before the second bass solo (Was aber ist der Mensch) turned towards a more thoughtful, begging mood.

Orchestra

The orchestra still seemed to be in need of getting into Florian Helgath’s pace, was occasionally lagging a tad relative to the choir. But also this was a “start-up issue”. Thereafter, the orchestra seemed miraculously transformed, more engaged, much more active than in Schubert. This is the music the orchestra has been created for, the music they are familiar with: one could instantly feel this.

In fact, the main limitation with the orchestra through the rest of the oratorio seemed to be in the dynamics: as in Schubert’s mass, soft segments (pp) often tended to be too loud, not subtle enough. And also, some moderate intonation issues persisted: occasionally, the low wind instruments seemed slightly off.

But apart from that, it was obvious that here, the orchestra was able to cope with much more freedom and differentiation in shaping phrases and dynamics. Florian Helgath’s conducting seemed more flexible, less rigid, the musical flow (especially in choral segments) was far more natural.

Sünde lieget auf uns von Anbeginn (Tenor)

Also Fabio Trümpy‘s tenor voice seemed to have grown since the Schubert mass: the volume appeared bigger, powerful, even astounding, also more dramatic—with the vibrato occasionally at the upper limit, maybe. However, the atmosphere in this solo is indeed desperate…

Vater unser in den Himmeln (Choir a cappella)

After the despair of the tenor solo, Stüssi inserted the Lord’s Prayer, in original form, for choir a cappella, by Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621). It was no surprise at all that the Zürcher Sing-Akademie made this a most subtle, intimate, touching, intense highlight of the entire concert: top-level choral culture—there is simply no better, time seemed to stand still in this!

So spricht der Herr (Alto) — Weh uns! (Choir) — Herr hilf mir (Tenor) …

Fritz Stüssi’s composing may have focused more on the soloists, the vocal aspects in general that Schubert: it was here that also Ingeborg Danz‘ expressive voice could exhibit its true volume, the power, its full alto timbre. My only quibble was that occasionally, her vibrato sounded fairly heavy.

The Zürcher Sing-Akademie formed the dramatic chorus “Weh uns!” into a first, dramatic climax in the oratorio, and Fabio Trümpy followed up with an equally desperate solo, with good diction and understandability: dramatic roles seem to suit him much better than lyrical ones!

Er war rein, doch trug er eure Schuld (Solo Quartet) — Wenn ich nur dich habe (Choir)

The performance of the solo quartet was harmonious—an impressive joint performance, impressive also in volume and balance, and how in the ensemble sound, each of the singers was able to retain and exhibit the character of their individual voice / timbre, without affecting the harmony. Only the soprano’s top register occasionally protruded a bit too much, but that wasn’t really irritating.

The last choir in the first part, “Wenn ich nur dich habe“, offers consolation and confidence—very touching in its own way. But that wasn’t the real ending: the first part ended with another a cappella choir, and hence another vocal highlight: a four-part setting of the Hymn “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin by Martin Luther (1483 – 1546).

Part II

The shorter second part of the oratorio offered several highlights, too: the excellent solo quartet—impressive as ensemble, but also giving each singer adequate presence and visibility. Excellent again the tenor, and later, Ingeborg Danz‘ was able to show intensity in a calm, contemplative, almost recitative-like segment.

The final fugue, “Denn die Gnade und Wahrheit” is a grandiose closure, with a both Mendelssohnian as well as Brahmsian gesture, again strongly reminding of the closing choir in Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem”. This part of the performance was one of the best in the entire concert: expressive, differentiated as a fugue, and devoid of the stiffness, the static pace that affected the fugues in Schubert’s mass.

Interestingly, I found the closure to be absolutely fitting, compelling: in the moment of the performance, I could not imagine a boys’ choir could make this ending any better.

The Music

One newspaper critic stated that Stüssi’s music has origins in Bach’s polyphony, Mendelssohn’s dramaturgy (whatever that may be), and Wagner’s harmonics. My associations were different. Already the first bass solo not only uses the text from the German Requiem, op.45, by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), but to me the attitude, the musical topoi indeed seem very close to baritone solo passages (“Herr, lehre doch mich”) from Brahms’ composition (which after all, premiered under the baton of Stüssi’s teacher, Friedrich Hegar!). Stüssi did not copy, but to me, the heritage seems very clear. I concede that the subsequent chorus could as well (almost) be by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847).

Yes, there may be “inherited features” in the oratorio. One may indeed call this is an epigonal work of a composer that wanted to continue on traditions from the first half of the 19th century. Nevertheless, overall, Stüssi’s composition retains an autonomous character and astounding quality both as composition, as well as in the overall dramaturgy. With his experience as choir master and conductor, Fritz Stüssi not only knew how to compose for singers, but he also was excellent at marrying choir, soloists, and orchestra. Stüssi’s melodic inventions don’t need to hide behind those of his romantic models: they are neither trivial / simplistic, nor simple copies.

Rating:

★★★★★ (choir)
★★★ (orchestra)
★★★★ (soprano)
★★★½ (alto)
★★★★ (tenor)
★★★★½ (bass)

An oratorio that is very much worth spreading and keeping in the concert repertoire, even if as a composition it doesn’t quite match the quality of Schubert’s, Mendelssohn’s and Brahms choral works.


Conclusion

Overall, the main “sticky point” about this concert is that it degraded Schubert’s Mass in E♭ major to an “introductory piece”, a “filler” for Stüssi’s oratorio, and hence didn’t do justice to the Mass. Yes, Stüssi’s oratorio received the attention, the focus it deserves, and it did indeed impress. However, Schubert’s Mass was probably not the right choice to start the concert.



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