Joachim Krause / Basel Sinfonietta, Basler Bach-Chor
Arthur Honegger: Symphonic Psalm “Le Roi David“, H.37

Martinskirche, Basel, 2019-03-24

4-star rating

2019-03-27 — Original posting

Joachim Krause, Basler Bach-Chor (© Zlatko Mićić)
Joachim Krause, Basler Bach-Chor (© Zlatko Mićić)

Introduction

For once, I attended a concert in Basel in which the Basel Sinfonietta was not the organizer. Rather, the Basler Bach-Chor (Bach Choir Basel) hired the orchestra for their concert featuring “Le Roi David” (King David) by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955). In their advertising campaigns, both the choir and the orchestra could not resist using the Oxymoron “Königliches aus der Schweiz” (Basler Bach-Chor: “royal stuff from Switzerland”) or “Schweizer König” (Basel Sinfonietta: “Swiss King”), referring to the fact that Switzerland actually defined itself as not being part of any kingdom, back to its foundation in 1291. I’ll leave it up to the historians to argue to which degree this has actually been true for the past 728 or so years.

The Artists

In this concert, the Basel Sinfonietta performed under the baton of Joachim Krause (*1951), who has been directing the Basler Bach-Chor since 1986. Krause grew up in Fulda, Germany. He received his musical education in Freiburg im Breisgau and in Paris. He graduated as church music director, then worked as assistant for various conductors. In 1984, he became music director (organist and choir master) at the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit) in Basel. Krause has since developed a broad range of musical activities, by founding and conducting various local and instrumental ensembles, covering music from Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) to today’s composers. Contemporary music has been a particular focus in Krause’s career. Starting 1996, he has also been conducting the Gemischter Chor Zürich, one of the traditional, big choirs in Zurich.

The Soloists

Arthur Honegger’s Symphonic Psalm “Le Roi David—one could call this a “dramatic oratorio”—requires three vocal soloists and a narrator:

  • Gudrun Sidonie Otto, soprano (born in Germany, performs music from baroque & older to opera)
  • Sofia Pavone, mezzosoprano (Italy / Germany, repertoire between Bach and contemporary music, predominantly opera)
  • Dino Lüthy, tenor (born in Bern/Switzerland, predominantly active in opera, now member of the ensemble at the Opera Cologne)
  • Örs Kisfaludy, narrator, born 1948 in Hungary, started his career 1964 as radio and TV actor. From 1985 onwards, he has been one of the prominent French-speaking reciters in opera and oratorio, throughout France, Portugal, Germany, and the USA.

Venue, Setting

The Basel music scene is still grappling with the fact that its main concert venue, the Stadtcasino Basel, is still in renovation (planned reopening in 2020). There are secondary venues for orchestral performances, but for oratorio, finding a suitable venue is tricky. The two most obvious alternatives are the Münster Basel (Basel minster, see my concert review from 2016-12-17) and the Martinskirche (St.Martin’s Church). The latter was chosen for this concert. Also here, I have previously attended a concert (see my concert report from 2018-03-29).

The minster is rather big, the acoustics not ideal for a concert such as this one. The Martinskirche offers the better acoustics, but oratorio performances are fighting space limitations. This is particularly true with works requiring a large orchestral apparatus.

In this concert, the church was sold out, nave and organ balcony filled with audience. My wife and I had seats in the nave, close to the center, in row 9 (seats 65 & 66). All photos below are my own (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved); I apologize for the modest quality. The lighting was difficult. Also, I did not dare standing up from the middle of the seat row, nor did I use a tripod. So, controlling and taking the shots quickly, with minimal disruption for my neighbors was a challenge.

Orchestra

This was most obvious in this performance, where the Basel Sinfonietta was taking up the space on the podium in front of the choir, reaching out into the lateral naves, as well as into the choir. The front of the podium is elevated above the nave by almost half a meter, and ascending towards the back and the sides. Already the orchestral arrangement was fairly wide, with the entire percussion section hiding away on the far right, in the lateral nave. Even the trombones, tuba and trumpets found themselves in the right-hand side lateral nave, and the horns were partly placed in the left-hand lateral nave. The one advantage of the broad orchestral arrangement was in the spatial transparency.

Choir

The situation was even more difficult for the choir: the sopranos were entirely in the left-hand lateral nave, oriented towards the orchestra. Tenors and Basses occupied almost the entire width of the choir, at quite a distance from the sopranos, and the altos stood partly in the choir partly in the right-hand lateral nave, squeezed between trombones and the percussion.

Solo Singers, Narrator

For the most part, Honegger’s composition asks for either the choir or one solo singer, occasionally one soloist plus choir. While not active, the solo singers sat in front of the stage, facing the audience. The active singer(s) climbed the few steps onto the podium, to perform to the right of the conductor. For most of the concert, the narrator stood in the nave, in front of the podium, in the conductor’s back.


Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955): Symphonic Psalm “Le Roi David”, H.37 (1921/1923)

The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) originally composed “Le Roi David”, H.37 in 1921, as incidental music to a French play by René Morax (1873 – 1963). Initially a “dramatic psalm”, it was also performed without staging, as oratorio. Only in 1923, Honegger combined the play’s narrative with the music, forming what he called a “Symphonic Psalm“, and giving it the current title.

Instrumentation

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.

The 1923 version vastly expanded this configuration to 2 flutes/piccolo, 2 oboes/cor anglais, 2 clarinets/bass clarinet], 2 bassoons/contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, organ, celesta, harp, and strings. The composition now also featured a chorus, soprano, alto, tenor, and a narrator, possibly also a boy soprano and an actress for scene #12.

The Plot

In three parts and 27 scenes, “Le Roi David” tells the biblical story of King David. I’m quoting from Wikipedia:

In the first part, the Lord directs the prophet Samuel to choose Saul as the ruler of the people of Israel. However, when Saul does not follow the Lord’s instructions, Samuel is told to place David as ruler. The first part continues to tell the story of David’s battles against the Philistines as well as Saul’s growing jealousy of David. The second part covers David’s crowning and unification of Israel. The third and final part tells of David’s lust for Bathsheba and his punishment for adultery. In this final section of the piece, David flees Jerusalem, loses his power, manages to restore his position as king then offends God by censuring the people. An epidemic disease afflicts Jerusalem, and David appoints his son Solomon to succeed him and then dies. At the end of the piece an angel tells of Isaiah’s prophecy of a flower blooming from David’s stem.

The Structure / Movements

  • Part I
    1. Introduction
    2. Cantique du berger David (The Song of David, the Shepherd) — mezzosoprano
    3. Psaume: Loué soit le Seigneur (Psalm: All Praise to Him) — SATB
    4. Chant de victoire (Song of Victory) — SATB
    5. Cortège (March)
    6. Psaume: Ne crains rien (Psalm: In the Lord I Put my Faith) — tenor
    7. Psaume: Ah! si j’avais des ailes de colombe (Psalm: O Had I Wings Like a Dove) — soprano
    8. Psaume – Cantique des Prophètes (Song of the Prophets) — men’s chorus
    9. Psaume: Pitié de moi, mon Dieu (Psalm: Have Mercy on Me, my Lord) — tenor
    10. Le Camp de Saül (Saul’s Camp)
    11. Psaume: L’éternel est ma lumière infinie (Psalm: God, the Lord Shall Be my Light) — SATB
    12. Incantation — narrator
    13. Marche des Philistins (March of the Philistines)
    14. Lamentations de Guilboa (The Lamentations of Gilboa) — women’s chorus
  • Part II
    1. Cantique de fête (Festival Song) — women’s chorus
    2. La Danse devant l’arche (The Dance before the Ark) — SATB
  • Part III
    1. Cantique: De mon cœur jaillit un cantique (Song: Now my Voice in Song Upsoaring) — SATB
    2. Chant de la servante (Song of the Handmaid) — mezzosoprano
    3. Psaume de pénitence (Psalm of Penitence) — SATB
    4. Psaume: Je fus conçu dans le péché (Psalm; Behold, in Evil I Was Born) — SATB
    5. Psaume: Je lève mes regards vers la montagne (Psalm: O Shall I Raise mine Eyes unto the Mountains? ) — tenor
    6. La Chanson d’Ephraïm (The Song of Ephraim) — soprano, women’s chorus
    7. Marche des Hébreux (March of the Hebrews)
    8. Psaume: Je t’aimerai, Seigneur, d’un amour tendre (Psalm: In my Distress) — SATB
    9. Psaume: Dans cet effroi (Psalm: In this Terror, the Great God which I Adore) — SATB
    10. Couronnement de Salomon (The Coronation of Solomon)
    11. Mort de David (The Death of David ) — soprano, SATB

Honegger’s score features French text only. The entire performance therefore was in French.

The Performance

Orchestra

The orchestra was not the organizer of this concert, and the listener’s focus rarely was on the orchestra: Honegger’s oratorio features only few purely instrumental sections, and whenever the choir, the soloists or in particular the narrator were active, the audience was captured by their roles. Still, the orchestra is present from beginning to end, carrying not only the harmonic and rhythmic foundation, but also adding a rich palette in colors to the music. And the Basel Sinfonietta was ideal for this function: it has proven its competence in 20th century and contemporary music in countless performances. With this, the ensemble is familiar with much more difficult, more intricate scores.

The orchestra part left very little, if anything to wish for. The ensemble performed with the expected precision, created a highly transparent soundscape. One may attribute some of the latter to the wide spatial arrangement of the ensemble. However, one should keep in mind that the complex acoustic environment created its own challenges: it must have been difficult to maintain mutual contact within the ensemble, across the width of the podium. Still, the coordination was excellent, the strings, woodwind and brass sections, as well as the percussionists, all proved to be in excellent shape.

One may argue that occasionally, the orchestra dominated over the choir. However, that is clearly a consequence of the spatial arrangement in this venue.

The orchestral performance was flawless. Still, I suspect that in a “proper” / regular concert venue (concert hall), the ensemble sound would have been slightly more coherent. Overall, however, that quibble is merely about nuances.

Conductor

Despite his central position on stage, Joachim Krause did not try making a big show out of his role. The bulk of his work was not on stage, but in being familiar with the score, and primarily in preparing the choir—essentially a big lay choir. As a church musician, conducting choirs has been central in his life for decades. He not only proved to be “at home” in this music, but his choir preparation obviously had been thorough and detailed, see below. His choir conducting reflected the degree of preparation. Even though the positioning of the choristers was far from ideal, he kept his singers in firm control: throughout the concert, there was never an audible shaky moment in the choir.

I wondered about Krause’s orchestral conducting. Of course, there was nothing to worry about here. With his decades of experience in conducting oratorios, masses and other choral works with orchestra (and soloists), he showed no weaknesses in controlling not only the choir, but also the orchestra—around 200 people altogether.

Choir

First and foremost: the choir performance was excellent, taking into account that this is a lay choir. One must also take into consideration the spatial spreading of the choristers. A large number of choristers were performing from the depth of the church choir, hence at a disadvantage relative to the orchestra. Furthermore, the sopranos (though probably the strongest voice anyway) were mostly singing from the lateral nave, in the direction of the percussion on the other side. They (also the choir as a whole) sure could not develop the same coherence and power as in a regular concert hall arrangement.

The large number of singers compensated for some of the disadvantages of the venue. And of course, one cannot measure a lay choir against an ensemble of professional singers. There were certainly moments (e.g., in No.8, the chant of the prophets) where one could sense that in Honegger’s harmonies, the intonation can be quite challenging, especially for a lay choir.

The choir was firm in rhythm / coordination. What amazed me even more was that with such a large number of singers (and despite the adversities of the venue), many of the texts (all in French!) were understandable without consulting the booklet, and they definitely sounded like “proper French”. This again proved Krause’s excellent preparation of the ensemble (over many, many rehearsals, I’m sure!). Congrats for this achievement!

Örs Kisfaludy, Narrator

From beginning to end, the center of the performance wasn’t the choir, the orchestra or the conductor, nor any of the solo singers: the entire performance lived from and with the narration by Örs Kisfaludy!

Voice

No, Örs Kisfaludy does not (or no longer, presumably) command over a huge, thundering, overwhelming or incisive speaker’s voice. It’s a relatively bright tenor voice, somewhat husky (maybe slightly tired from rehearsals and the performance on the previous day?). Still, it projects reasonably well, at least into the center of the nave (not sure about the rear seats, let alone the balcony). One might think that a microphone would help. However, I have no doubt that Kisfaludy would simply refuse to use a microphone. It would defeat his acting, render his interaction with the audience more indirect. Overall, it would definitely weaken his stage presence.

Most notably, Kisfaludy performed his entire recitation—a large amount of text—entirely from memory: impressive in that alone!

Acting

At least for people in the front half of the nave, the narrator’s voice, its projection and absolute volume were secondary. It was his stage presence, his acting that carried the performance though all or most of the evening. As mentioned, Kisfaludy was typically standing between the conductor and the audience—not elevated, but at the level of the audience in the nave. Most people in the audience just saw his head, maybe the gestures in his hands and arms.

However, his narrating, his language were central to the performance: fast and dramatic, but—needless to say—with excellent pronunciation. What he spoke was immediately understandable, especially in combination with his vivid facial mimics, his gestures and body language. His facial expression covered a vast range, from scare and sadness to visionary, enlightenment: fascinating, enthralling!

When not active, Kisfaludy either “commented” on the plot through his vivid, intense facial mimics, his occasional, burning stare that seemed to fixate situations or events far in the darkness of the rear nave, or rather in another world, a distant past. Alternatively, he might turn around and watch the “action on stage” with the very same intensity. Actually, throughout the performance, he was not acting, he was fully and truly living the tale, the plot. He did that with an intensity that instantly involved the listener (assuming a minimal understanding of the French language, of course).

Language

I think that this is one of the instances where music and language flow are tightly interwoven. I suspect that this music would lose much of its effect in a translation. And, of course, once one has heard Örs Kisfaludy as narrator in this piece, the mere thought of hearing this in any language other than French seems utterly absurd!

To a “sober, German-speaking mind”, the expression Kisfaludy’s recitation may initially feel like gross exaggeration. However, it clearly proved an excellent match to Honegger’s composition. Once the listener’s mind was in “French mode”, the recitation felt just natural, vivid, lively, very involved, enthralling.

Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Soprano

Gudrun Sidonie Otto’s voice covered both lyrical aspects, as well as dramatic scenes (Nos.14 & 15). In the former, she showed a warm, mellow timbre. In dramatic moments (especially in the upper range), her vibrato intensified, occasionally turned a little nervous. However, I felt that this perfectly suited the character of the music. Even though not exceedingly bright (let alone shrill), the soprano projected well, even though the brass-laden orchestra.

Sofia Pavone, Mezzosoprano

A warm, full voice with a warm, mellow, well-rounded timbre. The alto / mezzo role is rather small in this composition, and for the most part it requires lyrical rather than dramatic qualities. Sofia Pavone’s voice suited these requirements well. However, the role only exploits a small fraction of her vocal scope.

The alto is also central to the dramatic, central incantation scene (No.12): dramatic not only in the orchestra, but also in the alto recitation. This was Sofia Pavone’s strongest moment in the performance.

Dino Lüthy, Tenor

At first, it may seem strange that King David does not appear as a solo singer, but only (and all the more vividly!) through the description of the narrator’s (biblical) tale. The tenor solo (in alternation with the soprano) serves to comment and complement the dramatic tale through biblical psalms. For this, Dino Lüthy’s voice proved ideal: warm, mellow, harmonious, with a natural vibrato. Certainly, a Heldentenor voice would have been inappropriate for this role. Still, on rare occasions (e.g., No.9) , the tenor part moves into more dramatic heights—and there, a little more “ping”, more “metal” might have been helpful.

The Music

The Music is entirely in Honegger’s specific, personal idiom, neo-classical, moderately dissonant, catchy not in the melodies, but as a whole, especially in the brass fanfares, the percussion segments, and in Honegger’s typical harmonic textures. Momentarily, one may be tempted to state that relative to the narrator’s tale, the “action”, the music is almost secondary. However, that would be a gross misunderstanding: it’s the combination of the recitation and its illustration through the orchestral colors, the psalms, that make up this “Symphonic Psalm”. And Honegger’s music is exceptionally descriptive, pictorial. And as such, it is easy to understand. Honegger is very moderate in using dissonances (albeit not without challenges for the choir), doesn’t upset the listener at all.


Conclusions

“Le Roi David” is not a composition that one would listen to on end. Nevertheless, this concert proved that it is very well worth a concert visit. And, in this particular instance, Örs Kisfaludy’s recitation made the concert a most memorable experience!



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