Stephan Klarer / Junger Konzertchor Zürich, Basel Sinfonietta
Haydn: Oratorio “The Creation”, Hob.XXI:2

Fraumünster Zurich, 2016-11-12

2-star rating

2016-11-20 — Original posting


Stephan Klarer (source: www.stephanklarer.ch; © Michael Bosshard Zürich)
Stephan Klarer (source: www.stephanklarer.ch; © Michael Bosshard Zürich)

Introduction

Lay Choirs …

The time of the big lay choirs—is it over? Lay choirs—especially big ones—have existed over centuries. Just think of performances of Handel’s oratorios: these can’t possibly have been professional choirs. Lay choirs peaked in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. This was initiated by the revival of Bach’s and Handel’s oratorios, by proponents such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). Zurich was no exception to this. Several major choirs participated in the foundation of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft, founded in 1868. With the completion of the new Tonhalle in 1895, these choirs had an excellent venue and platform for their performances.

Typically, such lay choirs meet once or twice a week for rehearsing a popular work of choir literature. This can be an oratorio, a passion, a mass, a requiem, or cantatas. The highlight of the year for the choir then is the performance of that work in public. The associated success experience, and seeing a performance grow together over a year sounds like the prime purpose of people singing in a choir. However, of course, the experience of meeting other choir members, the socio-cultural interaction with other people may well be just as relevant, if not even more important.

… in Decline?

A lot has changed for choirs over the past 50 years. Professional life has changed profoundly, people’s mobility has increased. A large variety of new social and cultural activities, new means of communication led to a situation where it is much harder for choirs to recruit new, particularly younger singers. Consequently, the average age of the singers in a choir (often) constantly increases, causing a decline in the quality of the voices.

On top of that, the commercialization of daily life, increases in salaries and general pricing caused the budgets for choir concerts with orchestra to grow into almost astronomical dimensions. In addition, the rationalization of business life and community organization make it harder to find donors and subsidies from public institutions, or to obtain community funding. All in all, even if and where a choir is (just about) able to afford a decent orchestra, at the very least, the number of joint rehearsals will typically be at an absolute minimum.

Changes also happened on the part of the audience. Today, people are inundated with stimuli of all sorts. At the same time, there is a vast array of competing cultural and social offerings, sports events, digital media are omnipresent. All this makes concert offerings one of many cultural opportunities.

Trouble Finding Audiences?

Also, in urban areas, people not only have access to numerous, competing concerts at very high quality, but everybody can afford to purchase or access and listen to highest quality recordings on CD, through Internet / digital media. This leads to a situation where even professional ensembles often have troubles finding an audience, i.e., to perform concerts with a viable financial result.

The spreading of historically informed performances has further narrowed down the scope of choral works for lay choirs. Today, some conductors may even shy away from performing Bach’s works with a lay choir in an urban environment. And indeed, speaking for myself: I have spent many years singing in lay choirs—I know many of the works inside out, and I know what to expect from such performances…

This concert with Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” can serve as an exemplary demonstration of these issues, starting with the naming of the choir:

The Choir

The “Junger Konzertchor Zürich” (Young Concert Choir Zurich) for this vocal ensemble was founded 1963, a little over 50 years ago. The name presumably presumably meant to differentiate the choir from the phalanx of well-established choirs in Zurich. Some of these go back into the 19th century. This is of course totally legitimate and hardly arguable. However, in the aftermath, it appears short-sighted: now, 50 years later, the choir appears to be fighting aging in all voices, just like most of the other, big and small lay choirs in town. The usual problem is that strict quality standards and/or age limits can be enforced in professional ensembles, but hardly in lay choirs.

The  “Junger Konzertchor Zürich” is specializing in religious compositions, which the choir presents in its annual concert in the Zurich area.

Stephan Klarer, Conductor

Stephan Klarer is an experienced church musician. He grew up in Zurich, where he also received most of his education. He worked as bassoonist, choir singer and as choir conductor. In 1999 he became teacher for choir conducting, church music and Gregorian chant at the ZHdK (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich University of the Arts), where he is also conducting the Motet Choir, and the Choral Schola ZHdK.

The Venue

This concert was in the Fraumünster Zürich, one of the main churches of the old town of Zurich and formerly part of a women’s convent. The church is a well-known tourists attraction, because of its famous stained glass windows in the choir, by Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985). The church was founded in 853. The choir is in Roman style, nave is Gothic. A rod screen (Lettner) separates the choir from the nave. In this performance, choir and orchestra occupied the space of the crossing area and transept, back to the rod screen. The nave was filled by the audience: the concert was sold out.

The Setting for the Concert

The concert setting can also serve as illustration for the problems mentioned above. Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” is (mostly) based on the Holy Bible—yet, I think it rather fits into a concert venue than a church. Here in Zurich, the Tonhalle is the prime concert venue—however, that implies a substantial financial burden for the choir (let alone with the Tonhalle Orchestra!). The acoustics of that church proved to be non-ideal for this concert: there is substantial reverberation that blurs the articulation and (with choir and soloists) the pronunciation. Also, it makes spatial acoustic orientation much harder for the audience.

However, these were the least of the problems: the choir was largely placed under the rod screen, which proved rather unfavorable: particularly singers in the back were at a disadvantage in terms of projection. Worse even, it appeared to be a major impediment for the communication / coordination within the choir, but also between choir and orchestra.

The orchestra didn’t just occupy the crossing area, but partly also occupied the transept. This must have made it hard for the orchestra to communicate and coordinate between the voices. It also caused odd effects to the listener: from my position, the sound of the timpani appeared to emerge from the southern aisle. On top of that, the soloists were placed between choir and the orchestra, which did not help the clarity of their pronunciation.

The Soloists

Haydn’s oratorio asks for three or five soloists: the three archangels Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass), in the last part also Adam (bass) and Eve (soprano). Typically in concerts (such as here), soprano and bass are singing two roles each, so three soloists suffice. the soprano, Catriona Bühler, finished her diploma at the Swiss Opera Studio, in 2009. She is since pursuing an active career, mostly in opera.

The tenor Sebastian Lipp was born 1970 in Eberswalde (then GDR). He received his education at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin. He pursues a career as free-lance concert and oratorio singer, while also bein a free member in various, prominent vocal ensembles. The Swiss bass Samuel Zünd received his first vocal education in Amsterdam, then he studied with René Jacobs at the schola cantorum basiliensis and with Christoph Prégardien at the ZHdK. He has since been pursuing an active and successful career as soloist in opera and oratorio (and also in entertainment ensembles), and also as members of various vocal ensembles. Zünd now is teacher at the ZHdK.

The Orchestra

The Tonhalle Orchestra obviously was out of reach for this choir (then they might as well have performed at the Tonhalle!). Instead, the choir hired the Basel Sinfonietta, an orchestra usually dedicated to contemporary music (for its own projects), but definitely equally suited for music of the Vienna classic period.

The Composition — History

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) was inspired to writing his oratorios during his stays in England (1791/1792 and 1794/1795), when he heard Handel’s oratorios. The Oratorio “Die Schöpfung” (The Creation), Hob.XXI:2 was written 1797/1798 (Haydn’s second Oratorio “The Seasons” was completed in 1801). The creator of the libretto for “The Creation” was Gottfried, Freiherr van Swieten (1733 – 1803). Gottfried van Swieten based his text on the Bible (Genesis, Book of Psalms), and on the epic poem “Paradise Lost” by John Milton (1608 – 1684). I mentioned the roles of the soloists above: the archangels Gabriel (S), Uriel (T), Raphael (B), and in the last part Adam (B) and Eve (S). The choir doesn’t have a distinct role—one can see it mostly as commenter, though it also includes biblical text.

The composition is in three parts, with subdivisions according to the seven days of the Creation according to the Old Testament of the Bible, with an orchestral introduction presenting the state of “chaos” prior to the Creation. Rather than going into more detail, let me just give the outline of the three parts, and all the numbers (the English translations are taken from the choral score):

The Composition — Structure

Haydn’s oratorio is in three parts (S = soprano, T = tenor, B = bass):

Part I: The Creation of Light, of Heaven & Earth, of Sun & Moon, of Land & Water, and of Plants

Introduction

  1. Orchestra: The Representation of Chaos

Day 1

  1. Recitative (B): “Im Anfange schuf Gott Himmel und Erde” (In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth)
    Chorus: “Und der Geist Gottes schwebte” (And the Spirit of God moved)
    Recitative (T): “Und Gott sah das Licht” (And God saw the light)
  2. Aria (T): “Nun schwanden vor dem heiligen Strahle” (Now vanished by the holy beams) — “Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar” (Affrighted fled hell’s spirits)
    Chorus, fugue: “Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken” (Desparing, cursing rage)

Day 2

  1. Recitative secco (B): “Und Gott machte das Firmament” (And God made the firmament)
  2. Solo (S) with chorus: “Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk” (The marv’lous work beholds amazed)

Day 3

  1. Recitative secco (B): “Und Gott sprach: Es sammle sich das Wasser” (And God said let the waters)
  2. Aria (B): “Rollend in schäumenden Wellen” (Rolling in foaming billows)
  3. Recitative secco (S): “Und Gott sprach: Es bringe die Erde Gras hervor” (And God said, Let all the earth bring forth grass)
  4. Aria (S): “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün” (Now robed in cool refreshing green)
  5. Recitative secco (T): “Und die himmlischen Heerscharen verkündigten den dritten Tag” (And the Heavenly host proclaimed the third day)
  6. Chorus: “Stimmt an die Saiten” (Awake the harp)

Day 4

  1. Recitative secco (T): “Und Gott sprach: Es sei’n Lichter an der Feste des Himmels” (And God said : Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven)
  2. Recitative (T): “In vollem Glanze steiget jetzt die Sonne strahlend auf” (In splendour bright is rising now the sun) — “Mit leisem Gang und sanftem Schimmer” (With softer beams and milder light) — “Den ausgedehnten Himmelsraum” (The space immense of th’azure sky)
  3. Chorus: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (The heavens are telling the glory of God) —
    Trio: “Dem kommenden Tage sagt es der Tag” (To day that is coming speaks it the day) —
    Chorus: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (The heavens are telling the glory of God) —
    Trio: “Dem kommenden Tage sagt es der Tag” (To day that is coming speaks it the day) —
    Chorus, fugue: “Und seiner Hände Werk” (The wonder of his works)

Part II: The Creation of the Animals, and of Man & Woman.

Day 5

  1. Recitative (S): “Und Gott sprach: Es bringe das Wasser in der Fülle hervor” (And God said : Let the waters bring forth in plenty)
  2. Aria (S): “Auf starkem Fittiche schwinget sich der Adler stolz” (On mighty wings the eagle proudly soars aloft)
  3. Recitative secco (B): “Und Gott schuf große Walfische” (And God created great whales) —
    Recitative (B): “Seid fruchtbar alle” (Be fruitful all)
  4. Recitative_secco (B): “Und die Engel rührten ihr’ unsterblichen Harfen” (And the angels struck their immortal harps)
  5. Trio: “In holder Anmut stehn” (In fairest raiment)
  6. Trio and chorus: “Der Herr ist groß in seiner Macht” (The Lord is great in his might)

Day 6

  1. Recitative secco (B): “Es bringe die Erde hervor lebende Geschöpfe” (And God said : Let earth bring forth the living creature)
  2. Recitative (B): “Gleich öffnet sich der Erde Schoß” (At once Earth opens her womb) — “Das zackig Haupt” (The nimble stag) — “Auf grünen Matten” (The cattle in herds) — “Wie Staub verbreitet sich” (Unnumbered as the sands) — “In langen Zügen” (In long dimensions)
  3. Aria (B): “Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Himmel” (Now shines heaven in the brightest glory)
  4. Recitative secco (T): “Und Gott schuf den Menschen” (And God created Man)
  5. Aria (T): “Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan” (In native worth and honor clad)
  6. Recitative secco (B): “Und Gott sah jedes Ding” (And God saw every thing)
  7. Chorus: “Vollendet ist das große Werk” (Fulfilled at last the great work)
  8. Trio: “Zu dir, o Herr, blickt alles auf” (All look up to thee, O Lord)
  9. Chorus: “Vollendet ist das große Werk” (Fulfilled at last the great work)
  10. Chorus, fugue: “Alles lobe seinen Namen” (Glory to his name forever)

Part III: Adam & Eve, Their Happy Time in the Garden of Eden

Day 7

  1. Recitative (T): “Aus Rosenwolken bricht” (In rosy mantle appears)
  2. Duet (S, B) with Chorus (B): “Von deiner Güt, o Herr und Gott / Gesegnet sei des Herren Macht” (By thy goodness, O bounteous Lord / Forever blessed be his Pow’r) — “Der Sterne hellster / Macht kund auf eurer weiten Bahn” (Of stars the fairest / Proclaim in your extended course)
    Chorus: “Heil dir, o Gott!” (Hail, bounteous Lord!)
  3. Recitative (S, B): “Nun ist die erste Pflicht erfüllt” (Our first duty we have now performed) **
  4. Duet (S, B): “Holde Gattin, dir zur Seite” (Sweet companion, at thy side) — “Der tauende Morgen” (The dew dropping morn) **
  5. Recitative secco (T): “O glücklich Paar, und glücklich immerfort” (O happy pair, and ever happy henceforth)
  6. Chorus: “Singt dem Herren alle Stimmen!” (Sing the Lord, ye voices all)
    Chorus, fugue: “Des Herren Ruhm, er bleibt in Ewigkeit” (The praise of the Lord will endure forever)

The two pieces marked with (**) were omitted from this performance—see also below.

The Performance

Introduction / Orchestra

The only part where the orchestra is playing alone for a longer period is in the introduction. The “Representation of Chaos” therefore is  the only opportunity to judge the work of the orchestra (and the conductor, obviously). I really enjoyed the performance of the Basel Sinfonietta. I liked their carefully adjusted, diligent dynamics, particularly in the wind instruments, the beautiful, mellow sound of the clarinets. In the initial part, Stephan Klarer obviously didn’t try “filling” or softening Haydn’s almost revolutionary dissonances—he almost appeared to point them out in these first bars. Gradually, the dissonances soften up, the harmonies turn more complacent.

I found the intonation in the introduction to be largely flawless, clean. Later in the oratorio, there were times when I heard some (minor) imperfections in the orchestra’s intonation. However, I didn’t attribute this to careless playing. Rather, I think that the cause was in difficulties of musicians on one side of the ensemble to keep contact with their colleagues on the other side. Obviously, the conductor has the possibility, the potential to coordinate the ensemble, but he barely has any means to correct problems with the intonation in the orchestra during a performance.

The Choir

As in most oratorios, the choir has a key role. Haydn’s score contains many choir pieces with apparently easy melodic lines—but he also included a number of challenges for the singers. Already the first piece for the choir,”Und der Geist Gottes schwebte” (And the Spirit of God moved), is really tough: pianissimo, almost a cappella, and very tricky in the intonation. That challenge was very obvious, indicating the limitations of the choir. The setup / the acoustics didn’t help at all. Quite to the contrary. The problems with the intonation were exacerbated by the fact that the orchestra must have been hardly audible for the singers under the rod screen.

Later on, the challenges for the choir are less with the intonation, but more in the area of coordination, and with the coloraturas in some of the fugues. The choir performance did not suffer any major disasters / mishaps throughout the oratorio. However, some of the fugues turned into pretty much of a sound porridge, were lacking contours and clarity. And yet, Stephan Klarer appeared unwilling to make any concessions in his demanding tempo selections. Not all singers in the choir appeared to have the necessary flexibility and strength in the diaphragm to master the fast coloraturas.

On top of that, even though partly attenuated / obscured by the reverberation / the acoustics, I noted some “Helvetisms” (Swiss style pronunciations) in the choir. I may be particularly sensitive to this, but still!. On the bright side, there were certainly also periods where one could hear that Stephan Klarer spent a fair amount of time and effort to shape the dynamics in the choral part.

Samuel Zünd, Bass

Among the soloists, this was the voice I liked the most. Zünd has a nice, natural voice, with lots of plasticity and very good diction even in soft segments. Zünd’s voice is a baritone, which certainly also helped the understandability and the projection. Also, he appeared supported by the characteristics of the acoustics. However, Haydn was writing for a voice with a large range, and in the deepest bass sections, the singer also showed limitations, if not occasional problems withstanding the sound of the orchestra. Too bad that for obvious reasons the ending of “kriecht am Boden das Gewürm” (creeps along the lowly worm) was sung an octave above the notation. Also, I sometimes wished for a somewhat more natural flow in the recitatives: the tension tended to drop across rests.

Sebastian Lipps, Tenor

While the acoustics appeared to favor the bass, they weren’t favorable for Sebastian Lipp’s voice. Even more than the bass, in the lower range, Lipp’s voice often was drowning in the accompaniment. The voice as such is real nice and has good projection, particularly in the higher range; however, I think he would really have profited from singing in front of the orchestra, rather from his position in the back. Lipp’s “Mit leisem Gang und sanftem Schimmer” (With softer beams and milder light) in Nr.12/Day 4 turned into a very nice, touching moment, even in the pp.

Catriona Bühler, Soprano

A very nice, if not brilliant, well-projecting voice, forming excellent phrases—though it sometimes was hard to understand her: I’m not sure how much of this is due to the acoustics. Some of the coloraturas were rather superficial, and when she discharged after a climax or accent, her intonation had a tendency to suffer / be marginal.  I’m not sure whether was due to bad disposition or problems with the acoustics.

The three soloists were forming a good ensemble—though I’m sure that also as ensemble they would have profited from singing next to the conductor.

Abridgments

According to the program notes, the performance was “slightly shortened”. I can’t quite understand why this was done—the entire oratorio can be performed in just under 100 minutes, and this performance was without intermission, so the shortening by some 10 minutes was hardly justified. The abridging primarily consisted of the omission of the recitative (duet, Adam and Eve) “Nun ist die erste Pflicht erfüllt” (Our first duty we have now performed) and the subsequent duet “Holde Gattin, dir zur Seite” (Sweet companion, at thy side) and “Der tauende Morgen” (The dew dropping morn): a piece praising marital love.

From Haydn’s musical motifs, it is clear and obvious that this isn’t just about ideal love. It is much more “concrete” / handsome… I know: this was in a church and merely minutes from the place where the prominent Swiss reformators Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504 – 1575) lived and worked. Still, I hope that it wasn’t prudish feelings that led the performers to omit that segment. Aren’t these times over by now?

Conclusion

Sure, this concert is not comparable to performances with a professional choir. The choir consisted of around 100 singers, and everybody was singing with obvious dedication and engagement. Yet, it was obvious that in terms of volume, the “output” was far from that of a considerably smaller professional choir. However, volume is not the prime objective here. Dedication and engagement in the lay choir are indeed key in establishing an “emotional link” between the lay choir and the audience. And judging from the strong applause, the choir can still regard this performance as success.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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