Michael Gläser, Zürcher Sing-Akademie
Bach / Rheinberger / Brahms/ Bruckner
St.Peter, Zurich, 2019-02-10
Two months after their last concert on 2018-12-07, I was invited to attend and review yet another concert by the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy). This time, the choir performed in Zurich’s St.Peter Church, under the direction of Michael Gläser, a German singer and choir master.
Michael Gläser (*1957) grew up in Karl-Marx-Stadt (then GDR, now Chemnitz / Saxony). 1967 – 1978 he attended the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where also Johann Sebastian Bach used to teach. He also became a member of the Thomanerchor, which was founded in 1212. From 1978 to 1985, he received an education in singing and conducting from the University of Music and Theatre “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” Leipzig. Gläser has directed several prominent choirs in Eastern Germany (GDR), such as the GewandhausChor and the MDR Rundfunkchor (both in Leipzig), and the Berliner Singakademie (East Berlin). 1990 – 2005 he directed the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Munich. Since 1994, Michael Gläser teaches choir conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich.
The program notes mention Gläser’s particular ability to educate choirs towards highest quality voice culture, especially in the area of the most subtle pianissimo singing. In anticipation of some of my comments below: I suspect that one reason for Gläser’s cooperation with the Zürcher Sing-Akademie was in furthering the choir’s potential and abilities in sound quality and in singing at the bottom end of the dynamic scale.
Michael Gläser selected a program with compositions by Bach, Bruckner, Brahms, and Rheinberger:
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“, BWV 225
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Praeludium in E♭ major, BWV 552
- Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839 – 1901): Kyrie, Gloria from the Mass in E♭ major for Double Choir, op.109, “Cantus Missae“
- Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Fest und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sentences), op.109
- Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896): Motet (Graduale) in C major “Locus iste“, WAB 23
- Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896): Motet in F major “Ave Maria“, WAB 6
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552
- Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839 – 1901): Sanctus, Agnus Dei from the Mass in E♭ major for Double Choir, op.109, “Cantus Missae“
Background for the Program
The title for the program was “Eine Leipziger Motette” (“A Leipzig Motet”). This requires some explanation, which I’m partly quoting / translating from the concert brochure:
Those interested in sacred music know the term “Motet” as a type of composition, combining prayer and artful singing. Motet compositions have been composed for around 800 years. In Leipzig (home to the Thomanerchor), however, the term has an additional meaning: The musical highlight of the Vespers on Friday evening were a motet (such as one by Bach), performed by the Thomanerchor. From this, in Leipzig, the term “Motette” was adopted for the church service as a whole.
In “Motets” on Saturday afternoon, the focus further moved from the liturgy to music. Besides a motet and organ music, also a Bach cantata formed part of the service. Michael Gläser based the concept of that concert on such a “Leipziger Motette“—however, substituting Johann Gabriel Rheinberger’s Mass in E♭ major for Double Choir, op.109, “Cantus Missae” for the Bach cantata, and complementing the program with sacred works by Brahms and Bruckner.
Bach’s Motet was performed with basso continuo, consisting of three musicians:
- Alex Jellici, cello (*1989, Bolzano / Italy)
- Markus Bernhard, violone (*1983, Chur / Switzerland)
- Marco Amherd, chest organ (*1988)
Since 2015, Marco Amherd is cantor and choir master at the Johanneskirche in Zurich. He also teaches organ at the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich MKZ. Marco Amherd performed Bach’s BWV 552 on the main organ of St.Peter’s Church: a pipe organ installed in 1974, manufactured by Mühleisen Manufacture d´orgues from Strasbourg, an instrument with 3 manuals (61 keys, 12 + 11 + 17 stops) and pedal (32 keys, 12 stops, electric tracture).
The Zürcher Sing-Akademie performed with 32 (8 + 8 + 8 + 8) singers in front of the elevated, central pulpit / rood screen, across the entire width of the nave. The choir was actually arranged in double-choir configuration, i.e., 2 x (4 + 4 + 4 + 4) singers, with altos and tenors in the center. The continuo (cello, violone, chest organ) performed in the center, between conductor and choir.
The concert was sold very well. The photos indicate my seating position in the right-side rear block, at the corridor.
In the comments below, I don’t follow the exact chronology of the concert, but rather discuss the split performances (Bach, Prelude and Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552; Rheinberger, Cantus Missae, op.109) in a single block each.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) has composed at least seven Motets—vocal works for single or double choir:
- “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“, BWV 225, for double choir
- “Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf“, BWV 226, for double choir
- “Jesu meine Freude“, BWV 227, for 5-part choir (SSATB)
- “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir“, BWV 228, for double choir
- “Komm, Jesu, komm“, BWV 229, for double choir
- “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden“, BWV 230, for 4-part choir
- “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn“, BWV Anh.159, for double choir
Among these, Michael Gläser selected the first one, the Motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“ (Sing unto the Lord a new song), BWV 225, composed in Leipzig, around 1727. The work has three parts:
- “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (double choir)
- “Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet” (choir II) /
“Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an” (Aria, choir I)
- “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (double choir) /
“Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn, halleluia!” (choirs in unison)
The choir’s professional appearance started with how they entered the podium: perfectly organized, along the side walls, from the rear of the church, the front row (in correct order, of course) from the left, the rear row from the right. It’s the details that count!
I. “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“
Already the first notes / bars set the tone for the entire concert: not a sporty, al fresco performance, as often heard these days, especially under the label “historically informed”. Rather, a performance with very subtle dynamics, equally subtle accents, often rather mellow articulation, smooth coloraturas, perfect in sound, balance, voicing, intonation, homogeneity of the voices (I can’t remember any instance where a single singer’s voice was protruding from the ensemble / the group). Also the diction seemed flawless, although possibly slightly affected by the reverberation. The acoustics may also have further softened, smoothed out the coloraturas to a certain degree.
My general impression from the opening movement: an interpretation in which the sound quality, the overall musical flow took priority over aspects of virtuosity, drive, momentum, “gripping joy”. Overall: artful (too artful even?), pure, tasteful, beautiful—but also a bit technical / maybe too perfect…
II. “Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet” / “Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an“
Solemn, slow, pure, very even, perfect in voice control, homogeneity, sound color and balance: absolute vocal perfection / voice culture. And a first taste of how far the choir can go in ppp singing, without giving up vocal quality—excellent. I did ask myself, though, whether Bach’s chorales—originating in community singing, after all—shouldn’t carry more expression. Bach was also a down-to-earth man, I think?
III. “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” / “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn, halleluia!“
Virtuosic, with natural, “easy” coloraturas: first class again, technically, in diction, in voice control. Maybe too much in that direction, even? I mean: it all sounded very (too?) polished, perfect…
Overall Rating: ★★★★
In the years 1735 – 1739, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed and published his Clavier-Übung III (a.k.a. “German Organ Mass”). “Clavier-Übung” means “keyboard exercise”—in this case clearly for the organ. Actually, it is a collection of pieces, for the most part chorale preludes. It apparently includes some of the most complex and technically most challenging organ works that Bach has written:
- Prelude in E♭ major, BWV 552/1
- Chorale preludes BWV 669–677 (Lutheran Mass)
- Chorale preludes BWV 678–689 (Lutheran Catechism
- Four duets BWV 802–805
- Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552/2
The “framing” pieces form a “Prelude and Fugue” pair, now often performed as Prelude and Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552. The Prelude is the longest among all of Bach’s organ preludes, combining an overture (with elements of a French overture), an Italian concerto (second theme), and a German Fugue. The fugue is actually a triple fugue. Its first subject apparently resembles a hymn tune “St.Anne” by William Croft (1678 – 1727)—which Bach is unlikely to have known. Still, in Anglo-Saxon countries, the Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552/2 bears the surname “St.Anne”.
If Prelude and Fugue in E♭ major, BWV 552 are (part of) the “crown” of Bach’s oeuvre, then I don’t think this performance did justice to the composition. That started with the modest registration—as if the organist didn’t dare presenting the brilliance of (anything near) a baroque plein jeu in this composition. This is such a beautiful, splendid (and hence popular) piece, one that the composer sure must have been very proud of! Here, however, not only the registration was modest (mostly flue stops, rarely ever adding a 16″ stop), but it also lacked articulation, was mostly legato, lacked structure, strength, and even lost momentum towards the end of the prelude.
Also the articulation in the fugue was careful, but rather broad (with the exception of the second theme, on the Rückpositiv). When the first theme returns, it seemed a tad faster than at the beginning of the fugue, felt slightly restless. Somewhat of a disappointment, overall, and not at the level of the rest of the concert.
Overall Rating: ★★★
The organist and composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839 – 1901) grew up in the Fürstentum Liechtenstein, but spent most of his life in Germany. His oeuvre as composer is fairly large: a major number of sacred vocal works, operas, secular choral music, 2 symphonies, overtures, concertos, chamber music, piano sonatas, works for organ, and transcriptions. His Mass in E♭ major for Double Choir, op.109, “Cantus Missae“ (for the free score see IMSLP Website) includes the full mass ordinary:
- Kyrie: Moderato
- Gloria: Allegro moderato
- Credo: Moderato — Poco meno mosso — Più mosso
- Sanctus: Lento
- Benedictus: Andantino
- Agnus Dei — Dona nobis pacem: Lento — Poco più mosso
In this “Leipziger Motette” the Credo part was not included, the Benedictus appeared as second part of the Sanctus.
I. Kyrie: Moderato
Here now, in contrast to the initial motet, the solemn pace, the mellow articulation (and the vocal perfection, of course) made sense: a broad, flowing legato, wide and seamless dynamic arches. And this pp, the ppp and below: the purest, most perfect sound culture imaginable!
II. Gloria: Allegro moderato
After the initial Gloria fanfare, in the following entry of the basses, the ppp softness was bordering on too much. Also later, there were ppp / pppp moments where the sound in this venue was so soft that it started to lack substance / body. That’s not a deficiency of the choir, though, rather a lack of adaptation to the acoustics of the venue (in presence of the audience).
One key impression was that Michael Gläser (or his style of interpretation) seems a much better fit to romantic music. Or, at least, I had the impression that he failed to pick up on the developments in the interpretation of baroque music over the past few decades.
IV. Sanctus: Lento — V. Benedictus: Andantino
The very first entry of the female voices, all ppp, is very exposed. Maybe in this venue it was a tad too soft here? For a very short moments, the voices sounded very slightly shaky. But that really is my only quibble here…
VI. Agnus Dei — Dona nobis pacem: Lento — Poco più mosso
Here, the ability of the tenors to project down to the softest pppp was astounding!
If the goal of Michael Gläser’s appearance as guest conductor was to further the smoothness of sound and dynamics, maintaining the sound quality and control down to the finest pppp and below, then I can firmly state: this was a full success, congrats!
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
In response to being recognized as honorary citizen of the city of Hamburg, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Fest und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sentences), op.109. This is a collection of three motets for double choir (SATB+SATB), based on biblical verses in the translation by Martin Luther (1483 – 1546):
- Unsere Väter hofften auf dich (In you our fathers trusted), in F major: Feierlich bewegt (Solemnly moving)
- Wenn ein starker Gewappneter (When a heavily armed man), in C major: Lebhaft und entschlossen (Lively and determined)
- Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk (Where is there such a great nation), in F major: Froh bewegt (Joyfully moving)
After Kyrie and Gloria from Rheinberger’s Cantus Missae, this was another example of (absolutely adequate) perfect sound culture, homogeneity, intonation, purity of sound—all in near-perfection. Diction and vocalization were top-class, the pronunciation certainly never disruptive to the musical flow. The most I could say that perhaps some of the clarity in diction / pronunciation may have been sacrificed in favor of the perfection in sound culture?
On top of that: what beautiful, touching music—not performed often enough!
Overall Rating: ★★★★★
Throughout his life, Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) composed motets. In sheer numbers (there are up to 40 motets), this genre represents the biggest part of his oeuvre. The Motet (Graduale) in C major “Locus iste“, WAB 23 is one of his best-known works in this genre, set for four-part choir (SATB). It is the first motet that Bruckner composed in Vienna, in 1869. The motet was intended for the dedication of the votive chapel in the New Cathedral in Linz, in the town in which Bruckner had been organist at the (Old) Cathedral (Dom) between 1855 and 1868. At the time of the composition, the neo-gothic New Cathedral (Dom) was still under construction. The votive chapel then was the first and only complete part of the building .
The text of the motet consists of three verses only:
Locus iste a Deo factus est,
This translates to “This place was made by God, a priceless sacrament; it is without reproach.”
And the choir continued to excel—once more: sound culture in its purest form, perfect intonation, and maintaining perfect homogeneity and voice balance down to the finest pppp…
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Bruckner: Motet in F major “Ave Maria“, WAB 6
The Motet (Offertorium) in F major “Ave Maria“, WAB 6 pre-dates the “Locus iste” by 8 years. Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) composed it in 1861, while he was organist at the (Old) Cathedral (Dom) in Linz, Austria. The motet was first performed on 1861-05-12 in the Offertorium part of a mass in that cathedral. The text is that of the full, Roman-Catholic prayer Ave Maria (Hail Mary). The motet is set for seven unaccompanied voices.
… same here: perfect dynamic shaping of the phrases (pp, crescendo, etc.), perfection in general—to a degree where I started suspecting that Bruckner’s dissonances were “too nice”! I think the composer used dissonances very consciously, and making them “grinding” should not / cannot hurt? With both of Bruckner’s motets I felt that the vocal perfection may have made them sound a tad neutral. Given the composer’s deep, intense religious fervor, strong, expressive singing cannot hurt…
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore — Rheinberger: No.3, Abendlied (Evening Song) from Drei geistliche Gesänge, op.69
As the main program ended with the second part of the Cantus Missae by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839 – 1901), the choice of encore was very obvious: Rheinberger’s most famous work, the Abendlied (Evening Song), set for six-part mixed choir (SSATTB). This is the No.3 from the Drei geistliche Gesänge (Three sacred songs for mixed choir), op.69, comprising
- Morgenlied (Morning Song), based on a poem by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798 – 1874)
- Dein sind die Himmel (Yours are the Heavens), after Psalms 89:11,14a
- Abendlied (Evening Song), based on a verse from the Bible (Luke 24:29), in Luther’s translation
The text is as fllows:
Bleib bei uns,
denn es will Abend werden,
und der Tag hat sich geneiget.
(“Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”). Rheinberger composed this in 1855, close to his 16th birthday. He revised it later, 1873, at age 24.
A final highlight, the perfect closure to a very impressive concert full of beautiful, harmonious music (almost, at least)!
Questions of interpretation aside (that’s “the conductor’s business” and was discussed above): I have stated above that in terms of voice homogeneity, voicing quality and control, balance, dynamic range and control, even diction / pronunciation, I can hardly imagine a better choir in this class, i.e., professional ensembles of that size, even on an international scale. Only occasionally, I felt that a slightly stronger pronunciation (“s”, aspirated “t”) might have added a slight enhancement—but that really is a minor quibble and may be my personal taste (pronounced glottalization and aspiration on “t” may make the language sound “too German” to Swiss ears). But overall, I can’t think of technical improvements to the vocal performance in this concert.
The choir’s performance indeed was so perfect / flawless as to potentially sounding technical. And that is an area where I see potential for improvement: the ability to address the listener directly, rather than through the conductor. In this concert, I would subsume this under the direction / interpretation, and it did not affect all pieces to the same degree. However, in general, I see potential in going beyond technical perfection and “letting the music do its job”. Michael Gläser’s approach towards perfect sound may have highlighted that latter impression.
Potential for Enhancement?
But how could this be improved? I’m thinking of the following points here:
- The singers had their sheet music on individual stands. This has the big advantage that it avoids the inevitable, visible unrest from hand-held scores, etc., i.e., it stabilizes the visual impression, makes the ensemble appear “professional”. However, the stands also form a kind of barrier between the singer and the audience—especially if they are set as high as here (see the photos).
- Sure, lowering the stands may remove some of the barrier aspect, however, I also concede that it makes reading the score harder and may prevent reading the notes while also keeping an eye on the conductor through peripheral vision.
- There is only one possible break-through solution here: singing by heart. I’m not dreaming this up: I have experienced how much of a difference this can make—in a concert where singers did not only perform all choruses of the John Passion from memory, and the same singers also did all solo parts. It can be done, but certainly requires an extra preparation effort. All I can say is that the effect / enhancement is touching, stunning, mind-boggling: all singers suddenly are talking to the audience, to the listener’s heart directly!
I should add that I have nothing against technical perfection, as present / available through this ensemble. However, in the end, it should not be art for art (l’art pour l’art), but one means in making the music, the composer “speak to the listener’s heart”.
One last Quibble…
In the Bach motet, the conductor called for the organist to give the keynote for the choir—which is perfectly adequate, if not necessary to ensure the perfect accord between the choir and the continuo. However, for the subsequent choir performances, was it really necessary to get the keynote from the main organ, so ostentatiously, across the entire nave??? That seemed an almost harsh contrast to the subtle singing that followed.