Annedore Neufeld / Basler Münsterkantorei, Basel Sinfonietta
Xmas Concert — Honegger / Koechlin / Saint-Saëns

Münster Basel, 2016-12-17

3-star rating


2016-12-30 — Original posting

Annedore Neufeld (© Georges Bornschlegl)
Annedore Neufeld (© Georges Bornschlegl)

Introduction

A cold December evening in Basel, one week before Christmas: the entire city (to me always a place full of life) appeared concerted into a big Christmas market. A crowded market, full of Xmas illumination, people, noises, also on the north side of the Basel Minster, though on the south side of the Minster place, two lines started building up, with people who wanted to have good seats in the upcoming concert. this was an event without tickets (just donations), and with free seating.

My wife and I had reserved seats, so there was no need to line up. We did so anyway, as I had overestimated the travel time. It was a long half-hour in the cold! The temptation was there to step out to fetch a cup of mulled wine—but we resisted.

In the church, some suffering / enduring continued, through the hard chairs and the fact that one can hardly heat a church as big as this one. However, I’m glad to state that in the end the evening was worth all the enduring! The late romanesque and gothic nave was nearly full, despite the low temperatures. Of course, all the Christmas markets, decoration and illumination in the city had already tuned in the audience for this concert.

The Setup

The organ has an important role to the works in this program. The Basel Minster has the organ at the back wall, on a balcony high above the main entry portal, between the two towers. This explains the placement of the podium for orchestra, soloists and choir was standing in the back end of the nave, right under the organ. All chairs in the nave had been turned towards the back. They had to be turned again after the concert, for the church service in the following morning, and the same was repeated for the second concert on Sunday evening.

Some might argue that not only the chairs were oriented backwards, but also the music in this concert, to some degree. However, even though this may be true, it does not imply a lower quality. Also, it does not limit the listener’s or the musician’s (potential) pleasure with these compositions. After all, music for Christmas tends to use traditional harmonies, catchy, well-known melodies. Christmas is not the time for unintelligible, hard-to-understand, if not repelling (to some) compositions. And the concert in the Basel Minster certainly fitted into this scheme.

The Artists

Basler Münsterkantorei / Mädchenkantorei Basel

The main “actor” in this concert was the choir: the concert was organized by the Basler Münsterkantorei, the choir associated with the Basel Minster. The Basler Münsterkantorei has its origins 1965, when it emerged from a predecessor choir that was founded in 1962. Notable directors of the choir were (up till 1971) Martin Flämig (1913 – 1998), then (up till 1990) Klaus Knall (*1936). Since 2012, the choir—now consisting of around 60 members— is led by Annedore Neufeld.

In this concert, the Münsterkantorei was expanded by the addition of the Mädchenkantorei Basel. That name stands for both a choir school, as well as for a set of five choirs: early stages for girls from age 4 and from age 6, choirs from ages 8 and 11, and the concert choir for girls from age 14. The institution was founded 25 years ago. The choirs are led by Marina Niedel who did her studies in Trossingen (voice) and in Tübingen (choir conducting, German Studies). She is now pursuing various activities around Constance and in Switzerland, including conducting children’s choirs and voice formation, church music, and she is singing in various vocal ensembles. In this concert, the Mädchenkantorei Basel also contributed two soloists, Julia Kunz and Judith Knöchelmann.

Annedore Neufeld, Conductor

Annedore Neufeld did her main studies in Stuttgart (conducting, transverse flute, piano, voice). She then studied theology for two years, and she followed up with studies in church music in Tübingen. Annedore Neufeld then did studies in orchestral conducting in Berlin and in Zurich, and she took master classes with several conductors and coir directors such as Eric Ericson (1918 – 2013) and Helmuth Rilling (*1933). Neufeld was guest conductor with orchestras in Hungary, Denmark, Czechia, Germany and Switzerland, and she had leading positions as church musician in Copenhagen and Roskilde. Since 2006, she lives in Switzerland, where she fills positions as orchestra conductor, as organist, as choir master, and she is in the board of the International Bach Society in Schaffhausen.

Orchestra: Basel Sinfonietta

I don’t need to introduce the Basel Sinfonietta here—I have reviewed several concerts with this ensemble, most notably concerts with modern and newest repertoire. In this case, the orchestra acted as accompaniment to the choir(s), and in the entire concert, only two pieces were purely instrumental, see below.

Soloists

In Honegger’s Christmas Cantata (see below), the German baritone Matthias Horn (focusing on oratorio and vocal ensembles) was singing the solo part. The organ was played by the Swiss conductor, organist and musicologist Alois Koch. Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio asks for a full set of five vocal soloists. In addition to Matthias Horn’s baritone part, the German soprano Mechthild Bach, the German alto Roswitha Müller, an additional alto from the choir, Saskia Quené, and the German tenor Florian Cramer completed the set.

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël (1953)

The Composition

Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) composed his work “Une cantate de Noël (H.212)” (A Christmas Cantata) in 1953—it appears to be Honegger’s last composition. The work asks for a mixed choir, a children’s choir, baritone, orchestra and organ. There are three movements / parts:

  1. De profundis clamavi ad te Domine
  2. (the biblical Christmas story)
  3. Laudate dominum omnes gentes / Gloria, in excelsis Deo

The first part describes the turmoil on Earth prior to the arrival of the Messiah. The second part is a rich potpourri of (fragments from) well-known Christmas songs; it represents the biblical Christmas story. The final movement a solemn choir leads into an orchestral ending that resumes the dissonances of the first part.

The Performance

I. De profundis

I don’t see Arthur Honegger as revolutionary composer—particularly, certainly not in his Christmas Cantata. That does not imply that his compositions are entirely romantic: this first movement starts with deep, somber, dull organ tones—a threatening void? Gradually, the orchestra joins in, then the choir, initially just singing “O” (male voices), or humming (female voices). Throughout the composition, the organ provides the foundation, as well as discreet support for the singers.

The subsequent choral section “De profundis clamavi ad te Domine” describes the world’s desperation, the longing for the Savior. The music expresses this through dissonances and polytonality. The pain is building up and culminates in a dissonant, loud, almost chaotic climax. Thereafter, in the “Freue dich, o Israel” (Joy to thee, o Israel), the atmosphere turns more confident.

Choir(s) Performance

After initial, minor tonal impurities (to be expected in this setting!), the intonation in the choir rapidly settled. With this initial piece, the lay choir had already mastered (very successfully) the biggest technical hurdle of the evening. From there on, one could enjoy the homogeneous choir voices, clear (devoid of vibrato, of course), with excellent volume: the choirs could easily withstand the “background noise” from the organ, or later the orchestral accompaniment. Both diction and pronunciation in the choirs were excellent. With the exception of a few short quotes from French, popular Christmas songs, all French texts in this composition were sung in German (the Latin of course left untouched).

The achieved volume, the excellent diction and voice control / dynamics were a clear testimony of Annedore Neufeld‘s excellent preparation. She is an excellent choir educator—and an excellent conductor. Her precise, big gestures provided excellent support of the singers, helped them staying coordinated, keeping dynamics and intonation under control. Also with the orchestra, her acting was very professional, competent and precise: a joy to watch her conducting!

II. (Christmas Story)

The middle part opens with “Fürchtet euch nicht” (Do not be afraid), which the bass (Matthias Hornbaritone) sings from high up on the organ balcony, with warm, full voice, with the organ accompanying. Thereafter, with the “Es ist ein Reis entsprungen” (originally “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen“, i.e., “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!”), choirs and orchestra set in, and we are definitely in Christmas mood: the music is a colorful quodlibet, composed of numerous, well-known Christmas songs / carols. As popular and easy that may sound, one should not underestimate the challenges for the choir, as many of the melody lines run independently, in parallel, polyrhythmically. The orchestra only provides limited support to the individual voices (it is anything but mere colla parte accompaniment!).

III. Laudate dominum / Gloria, in excelsis Deo

The final part (with bass solo and choirs participating) is mostly homophonic. It features Artur Honegger’s typical idiom. Despite dissonant sections, the purely instrumental ending is jubilant, features catchy melodies, including more quotes from Christmas songs—heart-warming music, with a serene, soft ending!

Koechlin: Vers la voûte étoilée, op.129

Charles (Louis Eugène) Koechlin (1867 – 1950) was a French composer with a broad range of interests, such as medieval music, Back, Rudyard Kipling, film, traveling, photography, socialism. On his mother’s side, Koechlin (French pronunciation: keklɛ̃) has roots in the Alsace, but he grew up in Paris. His father died when he was 14, and his family wanted him to become an engineer. Koechlin entered the École Polytechnique at age 20, but the studies did not go well—in parts because he contacted tuberculosis.

After some private music lessons, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1890, studying composition with Jules Massenet (1867 – 1950), fugue and counterpoint, as well as musical history. From 1896 on he also studied with Gabriel Fauré (1845 -1924), later also cooperating with that composer, as assistant (he orchestrated the suite from Pelléas et Mélisande). Koechlin never was an official teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, but notable composers studied with him, such as Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983) and Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963).

Koechlin’s output as composer covers a rather wide repertoire, including symphonies, symphonic poems and other orchestral works, chamber music and other instrumental works, choral works, songs.

The Composition

Koechlin wrote his Symphonic Poem “Vers la voûte étoilée” (Towards the starry vault), op.129, around 1923 – 1939. The work only premiered 1989 in Berlin. The version that we heard in this concert is an arrangement by Alois Koch. The program notes called it a “Nocturne for orchestra”; it is dedicated to the memory of the astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842 – 1925). Koechlin’s composition to me is an impressionist work, a rich and diverse soundscape, using a rather large instrumental setting. The composition reminded me of music by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918).

The piece begins in silence, at a walking pace. Quite often, Koechlin works with very high flageolet tones. Gradually, the music builds up, imperceptibly progressing to a faster tempo, up to a climax—then gradually calms down again, finally ending in more flageolets, back into silence. As the title suggests: a human’s amazement about the creation, the astonishment about the infinity of the universe when looking at the starry night sky.

The Performance

Here now—in the absence of the vocal component—the listener could concentrate on the “inner workings” of the Basel Sinfonietta—and again the work of the conductor: Annedore Neufeld again demonstrated her competence with the orchestra. Even though as a concert venue, the Basel Minster is fairly large, I never felt any negative impact from the acoustics of the venue, i.e., I never sensed any excess in reverberation. If there were unwanted acoustic phenomena, then it was through occasional acoustic immissions from the Christmas market next to the church.

Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël, op.12

The Composition

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921) wrote his Oratorio de Noël, op.12, in 1858, in a mere two weeks, finishing it 10 days before its premiere on Christmas that year. At that time, Saint-Saëns was organist at the Madeleine in Paris. The oratorio features 10 movements:

  1. Prélude (in the style of J.S. Bach)
  2. Recitative (SATB) “Et pastores erant” — Chorus “Gloria in altissimis
  3. Aria (A) “Exspectans exspectavi
  4. Aria (A) and chorus “Domine, ego credidi
  5. Duet (SB) “Benedictus
  6. Chorus “Quare fremuerunt gentes
  7. Trio (STB) “Tecum principium
  8. Quartet (SAAB) “Laudate coeli
  9. Quintet (SAATB) and chorus “Consurge, filia Sion
  10. Chorus “Tollite hostias

The first vocal piece is a recitative for four soloists (SATB) and choir. Among the following pieces, two (VI, X) are for chorus, the other numbers build up from an aria (A) to a duet (SB), to a trio, a quartet, and a quintet.

The Performance

I. Prélude (in the style of J.S. Bach)

In the instrumental introduction, the music gradually and seamlessly evolves out of the organ, more and more also involving the orchestra. I again enjoyed the mellow, homogeneous sound of the strings. All remaining sections are with vocal soloists and/or choir:

II. Recitative (SATB) “Et pastores erant” — Chorus “Gloria in altissimis

The recitative (accompagnato) involves four soloists, mostly sequentially. I would call this “semi-scenic”: first, tenor and alto act as “Evangelist”, the soprano then takes the role of the Angel talking to the shepherds, and finally, the role of the Evangelist announcing the arrival of the great heavenly army is filled by the bass. The choir concludes with “Gloria in altissimis Deo“.

I found Florian Cramer‘s tenor voice to be clear, lucid, well-projecting, smooth, linear, with very little vibrato. The alto voice of Roswitha Müller sounded warm, fairly full, but to me used too much vibrato (and too heavy, too dramatic). Mechthild Bach‘s soprano voice, while fairly full in volume and with a warm timbre, also sometimes sounded rather nervous in the vibratoMatthias Horn‘s bass voice (along with the tenor) was more convincing than the female voices. The choir part is relatively simple, initially homophonic, later with simple polyphony. Annedore Neufeld‘s excellent preparation could be heard in the excellent dynamic and voice control throughout the choir.

III. Aria (A) “Exspectans exspectavi

In the orchestral part, this is a pastoral, soft, an idyllic scene. Roswitha Müller sang her expressive aria with a warm, emotional voice, full and projecting also in the lower register.

IV. Aria (T) and chorus (SSAA) “Domine, ego credidi

The aria for tenor and chorus reminded me of religious compositions by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847): Florian Cramer sang with “ping”, with his nice, linear voice, absolutely firm in intonation, and the choir (women only) matched the qualities of the soloist.

V. Duet (SB) “Benedictus

In the following duet, the accompaniment is just with harp and organ. The composer prescribes “flutes and oboe in unison, senza Ped.”—to me, the organ sounded a bit like one of these small organs at fairs, or like a harmonium. As for the vocal parts: the main challenges were with keeping rhythm and clarity, while maintaining intonation and Latin pronunciation. Maybe, the composer’s distribution of the syllables onto the melody line is not exactly ideal? Mechthild Bach showed a certain tendency to dominate over Matthias Horn’s part—she should have taken back her voice a bit. The soprano also reached her limit with the high C in the final bars. The piece does not sound exceedingly complicated, but is trickier on the singers than it sounds.

VI. Chorus “Quare fremuerunt gentes

The entire oratorio features pleasant, friendly harmonies, catchy, mostly simple melodies, as one would expect for Christmas music (I don’t mean to sound derogatory with this!). It’s largely a serene, heart-warming idyl. The one exception in this is this central choir “Quare fremuerunt gentes” (Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?), which (aptly) features an earnest, dramatic atmosphere. But even this piece brightens up to a second part, “Gloria Patri“, building up to a jubilant climax, then retracting to an ending in calm, soft harmonies on the organ.

I really enjoyed the excellent performance of the choir in this piece: excellent in the coloring of the vowels, diction, clarity, intonation, and dynamic control. Congrats!

VII. Trio (STB) “Tecum principium

In equivalence to No.V, this lyrical trio (soprano, tenor, bass) also has a “small” accompaniment by harp and organ, the harp mostly playing in gentle undulations. I found the soloists to form an excellently matching trio, a good ensemble. The piece features very nice cantilenas, particularly in the soprano part. Mechthild Bach mastered this well, with good voice control and coloring, despite the challenging heights.

VIII. Quartet (SAAB) “Laudate coeli

For the following two segments require the addition of a second alto to the ensemble of soloists—here, the soloists mentioned above were complemented by a singer (Saskia Quené) from the Basler Münsterkantorei. This is a somewhat critical configuration—however, the professional soloists (in this piece soprano, alto, bass) carefully kept their volume under control, such that the choir soloist didn’t drown in masses of vocal volume around her.

IX. Quintet (SAATB) and chorus “Consurge, filia Sion

The above also holds true for the full quintet of soloists—now more in balance, thanks to the addition of the tenor. The choir joins in, mostly homophonic. The music turns more dramatic in the “Egrediatur ut splendor justus Sion, et Salvator ejus ut lampas accendatur” (Until Zion’s righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. – Isaiah 62:1). But the ending is again peaceful, calm.

My only critical remark here is that the solo soprano wasn’t always clean in the intonation.

X. Chorus “Tollite hostias

All vocal and instrumental forces united for the festive final chorus, including the girls’ choir, and including all soloists (standing between choir and orchestra, singing colla parte with the choir). Very nice music, like a church community chorale, very catchy (too catchy for some, maybe?).

Conclusion

Overall, the imperfections in this concert were really minor, especially considering that a key role was occupied by lay choirs. The latter demonstrated amazing capabilities in volume, homogeneity, voice control, diction—certainly to a large part thanks to Annedore Neufeld: congrats!

The key point, however, is that this was not a competition performance, nor an ordinary, “shiny” event in a concert hall: it was part of the Christmas celebration, and as such, its main purpose was to offer a “Merry Christmas!” to the audience. And I’m sure everybody felt that the musicians and singers did that very well!


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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