Florian Helgath, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Orchestra La Scintilla
Bach / Pärt / Praetorius/Sandström
Kirche St.Jakob, Zurich, 2018-12-07
2018-12-10 — Original posting
Meisterhaft in Intonation, Homogenität und Balance — Zusammenfassung
Perfekt organisiert der Auftritt des Chores. Disziplin und volle Konzentration auf die Musik. Ausgezeichnete Stimmkontrolle jedes einzelnen Chormitglieds—keine Einzelstimme tritt aus dem Ensembleklang hervor. Das Timbre, die Tonqualität ist ganz der jeweiligen Musik angepasst. Der Chor lotet den dynamischen Bereich von pppp bis ffff aus, Kontrolle der Dynamik, wie auch Diktion und Aussprache, sind absolut meisterhaft. Gratulation!
Das sehr hohe Niveau der Zürcher Sing-Akademie lässt auch im Vergleich mit internationalen, professionellen Ensembles keinen Wunsch übrig.
- On the Oratorio
- Concert & Review
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata I, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage”
- Structure / Movements
- The Performance
- 1. Chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage”
- 2. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit”
- 3. Recitativo accompagnato (A) “Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam”
- 4. Aria (A) “Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben”
- 5. Chorale “Wie soll ich dich empfangen”
- 7. Chorale (S) / Recitativo accompagnato (B) “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” / “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn”
- 8. Aria (B) “Großer Herr und starker König”
- 9. Chorale “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein”
- Pärt: Magnificat (1989)
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata II, “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend”
- Structure / Movements
- The Performance
- 10. Sinfonia
- 11. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend “
- 12. Chorale “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht”
- 13. Recitativo accompagnato (Evangelist/T, Angel/S) “Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen” / “Fürchtet euch nicht”
- 15. Aria (T) “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet”
- 17. Chorale “Schaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall”
- 18. Recitativo accompagnato (B) “So geht denn hin!”
- 19. Aria (A) “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh'”
- 20. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und alsobald war da bei dem Engel”
- 21. Chorus “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe”
- 23. Chorale “Wir singen dir in deinem Heer”
- Praetorius / Sandström: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (1990)
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata III, “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen”
- Structure / Movements
- The Performance
- 24. Chorus “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen”
- 25. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren”
- 29. Duet (S, A) “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen”
- 30. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und sie kamen eilend”
- 31. Aria (A) “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder”
- 35. Chorale “Seid froh, dieweil”
- 24. Chorus (da capo) “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen”
- Encore — Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248/6 — Chorale “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier”
- Encore — Bach: “Dona nobis pacem” from the Mass in B minor, BWV 232
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata I, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage”
Four years ago, I attended a concert of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy). In that concert, on 2014-12-19, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie performed Cantatas I – III from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, along with works by Bax and Britten. That concert was under the direction of Timothy Brown (*1942, choir master back then), the instrumental part was carried by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. For details please see my concert review.
Years have gone by, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie continues to prosper, now (since 2017) under the direction of its new choir master, Florian Helgath (*1978), see also my report from a concert on 2017-11-03. Almost exactly four years later, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie invited me to review this year’s Xmas concert, again featuring Cantatas I – III from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. This time not at Tonhalle (in renovation), nor at Tonhalle Maag, but in Kirche St.Jakob, a venue frequently used for concerts.
Besides the new conductor / choir master and the venue, there was one key aspect that changed in this concert: the orchestra this time was the Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich, Zurich’s biggest and most prominent formation for historically informed performances (and certainly my favorite HIP orchestra in the area). La Scintilla originally had grown out of the orchestra that Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016) created at Zurich Opera in the late 1970s for his Zurich cycle of Monteverdi Operas. With La Scintilla, I expected the instrumental side of the performance to be as good as if can get in Zurich. Definitely, I very much prefer this formation over the Tonhalle Orchestra for Bach’s music.
Actually, I have had the pleasure to attend a fair number of concerts with this choir—my expectations for this evening were very high!
As mentioned above, the main part of the program was identical to that of the concert in 2014, with Cantatas I – III of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This time, however, there was no intermission, and Bach’s three cantatas were linked through different vocal works, all a cappella, such that with the encores, the program looked as follows:
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata I
- Arvo Pärt (*1935): Magnificat (1989)
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata II
- Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621) / Jan Sandström (*1954): Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (1990)
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata III
The above list links to the respective sections in the article. For Conclusions & Ratings see the bottom of the text.
The concert announcement listed the following four vocal soloists:
- Malin Hartelius (*1966, see also Wikipedia), soprano
- Kristina Hammarström, alto
- Benjamin Bruns (*1980), tenor
- Ludwig Mittelhammer (*1988, see also Wikipedia), bass
Of these, Kristina Hammarström unfortunately was not able to perform. At short notice, the Ukrainian mezzosoprano Christina Daletska (Христина Далецька, *1984 in Lwiw, see also Wikipedia) stepped in for her.
With one exception, this was my first encounter with these soloists. About the tenor Benjamin Bruns (*1980) I already had an excellent impression on the occasion of a Philharmonic Concert at Zurich Opera, on 2018-07-15.
The Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich occupied the front part of the nave, in the center of the church. The strings were performing on the left, the wind instruments on the right-hand side. In the center of the semi-circular arrangement, there was the continuo group, with a chest organ, a harpsichord, and a theorbo, supported by cello & double bass on the left, and a baroque bassoon on the right. The string instrument players (4 + 4 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, double bass) used baroque bows, the wind instruments were all baroque (natural trumpets), the sticks for the baroque timpani were purely wooden and very slim.
The choir occupied the first steps of the elevated part of the nave, towards the choir, right behind / around the orchestra. In a somewhat unusual (but certainly well-thought out) arrangement, Florian Helgath had the seven tenors singing on the left-hand side, behind the strings. The eight altos were on the right, behind the wind instruments, while the eight sopranos were lined up in the middle, and the eight basses sang behind the female voices, one step up from the others. This put the sopranos—mostly younger singers (& voices) into the center, which suited the jubilant, festive nature of Bach’s Oratorio really well.
Among the soloists, bass, alto and soprano performed next to the conductor, while the tenor sang further back on the left, next to the continuo group. This certainly made sense for the role of the narrator / evangelist, though it may have increased the challenge in the virtuosic tenor aria in Cantata II.
The audience seats in the nave were essentially sold out, and although I could not visually confirm this, also the rear balcony, and the lateral galleries must have been well-occupied. My wife and I had seats in the center of the audience in the nave, around rows 8 – 10.
On the Oratorio
The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) doesn’t require an introduction. It consists of six cantatas, each for a specific day in the Christmas season:
- “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage“, Cantata for the First Day of Christmas
- “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend“, Cantata for the Second Day of Christmas
- “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen“, Cantata for the Third Day of Christmas
- “Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben“, Cantata for New Year’s Day (Feast of the Circumcision)
- “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen“, Cantata for the First Sunday after New Year’s Day
- “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben“, Cantata for the Feast of Epiphany
This concert followed the tradition of performing the first three cantatas at the opening of the Christmas Season. In the sections below, I’ll just mention the instrumentation (which is specific to every cantata), and the structure of the cantatas in this concert.
Concert & Review
Structure / Movements
- Chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit“
- Recitativo accompagnato (A) “Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam“
- Aria (A) “Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben“
- Chorale “Wie soll ich dich empfangen“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn“
- Chorale (S) / Recitativo accompagnato (B) “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” / “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn“
- Aria (B) “Großer Herr und starker König“
- Chorale “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein“
Primarily for the orchestra, the venue appeared non-ideal. For one, with the exception of the first 2 – 3 rows, people sitting in the nave had very limited (if any) view onto the orchestra. The rare exceptions were the wind soloists (such as Philipp Mahrenholz, oboe, oboe d’amore; Maria Goldschmidt, flauto traverso), the violin soloist (Ada Pesch, concertmaster), maybe the double bassist; even the three trumpet players were partly hidden on the very far right edge.
More importantly, the acoustics of the venue obscured the transparency and affected the balance within the orchestra. The violins were often acoustically underrepresented, the woodwinds also seemed to be at a disadvantage in this venue (e.g., when accompanying the choir, or when playing with the timpani). Also the bass register lacked clarity. And it obscured most of the differentiation in the continuo (theorbo vs. chest organ vs. harpsichord). It was sad to see how much of the care, diligence and differentiation was lost through the acoustics.
On the other hand, the timpani appeared over-amplified by the acoustics. To some degree, they covered both the woodwinds, as well as the strings. Maybe their placement under the edge of the right-hand side gallery wasn’t optimal?
One might think that the experience of the orchestra should have helped avoiding balance issues. However, ultimately, it’s up to the conductor to control the acoustic balance, to set the relative weight of strings vs. continuo vs. woodwinds vs. brass vs. timpani—relative to choir and soloists, needless to say.
However, Florian Helgath’s primary role is that of a choir master / conductor and educator. As we will see, he is excellent at this. Judging him as conductor of the orchestra is difficult from this one performance. It seemed to me that irrespective of the volume, he tended to use big gestures with his arms. The choir must have a clear understanding of what his intentions are—but the orchestra has a hard time reading dynamics (or adjusting the balance, the relative volume) from such uniformly big gestures: to the orchestra, big movements primarily mean “loud(er)”.
1. Chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage“
Florian Helgath’s tempo was not rushed, but very fluent. However, he was (correctly) reading (and often conducting) the piece in entire bars (3/8), which made the fluent tempo appear natural. This also avoided any “quaver stomping”, and the timpani beats were (albeit dominating) very differentiated, throughout the performance.
The music appears popular and easy—however, it is not trivial to find the right balance between uniform quavers, and exceedingly heavy first beats in every bar. Some may have found the latter to be the case—I think it was a matter of “getting into the sound” (and the acoustics), which may have taken a while—but then I felt a natural (often almost solemn) swaying / breathing in the music. To me, the performance never felt excessively dogmatic, authoritarian.
Already here, the choir left an excellent impression: very well-balanced between the voices, as well as within each voice, very good diction, light and clear in the articulation, impressive in projection and voicing, effortless in coloraturas, as well as across the entire range. Similarly the coordination, the intonation, diction and coloring of the vowels, and the differentiation in dynamics left nothing to wish for!
One little quibble: the broadening prior to the da capo seemed a nuance fabricated. The (short) closing ritardando, though, felt natural and perfectly adequate.
2. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit“
Even though he was singing from behind the violins, Benjamin Bruns left an excellent impression! He found the right balance between dramatic recitation and a more lyrical or neutral reading of the biblical text: perfectly adequate for the Christmas Oratorio (a passion oratorio often, on the other hand, is often more dramatic). Here, we heard an excellent, natural narrator—with an excellent voice: beautiful, warm timbre with the right amount of “ping” (i.e., projection), very good volume, not overpowering.
3. Recitativo accompagnato (A) “Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam“
An advisory note first: I don’t mean to be harsh towards Christina Daletska—she was stepping in at short notice, probably had limited time for rehearsals only and therefore may have little or no time to adjust to the orchestra, the acoustics, the other soloists. So, critical remarks ought to be read with a grain of salt. Also, Bach’s score is really intended for an alto voice—Christina Daletska rather is a mezzosoprano.
In this accompagnato, Daletska’s alto voice sounded somewhat “covered” (especially after the tenor’s recitative!).
4. Aria (A) “Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben“
The aria that followed confirmed the above impression: Christina Daletska has a nice, warm and mellow timbre—however, with somewhat limited projection. Especially the low (alto) register lacked volume, and in the middle part, the coordination with the continuo wasn’t always perfect—Florian Helgath was sticking to a relatively fluent pace, resisted the temptation to slow down. However, the final bars did feel a tad pushed—a slight broadening would have felt more natural.
The acoustics may have worked against the soloist, too, though, as also the orchestra lacked transparency, the violins were barely audible.
5. Chorale “Wie soll ich dich empfangen“
Chorales are tricky! One needs to find the right balance between (pretended) community singing, formalism, and a natural language flow. This first chorale was very (probably too) solemn, measured, on the slow side. The phrasing (linking of verses) followed the language, though. My personal preference would have been a slightly more fluent, but more intimate interpretation.
7. Chorale (S) / Recitativo accompagnato (B) “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” / “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn“
A fluent tempo in the chorale / oboe d’amore segments, with the right amount of momentum. Helgath was switching between conducting crotchets and entire bars, which kept the pace fluent. The choir sopranos performed the chorale with very linear voicing: beautifully simple! My only quibble: the final Kyrie elais, rather than eleis.
The recitativo parts were the encounter with Ludwig Mittelhammer‘s very nice baritone voice, his warm timbre, his natural, expressive singing.
8. Aria (B) “Großer Herr und starker König“
What joyful music, at a fluent pace, full of momentum! And here, Ludwig Mittelhammer’s voice came to full bearing: excellent diction, clear articulation, differentiated ion the dynamics, excellent projection. Helgath’s tempo seemed really ideal for this voice (and Mittelhammer’s voice seemed ideal for this music!). I really enjoyed the extra ornamentation in the da capo (both in the solo, as well as in the trumpets). Also, the relatively soft sound of the natural trumpets was so much of a better fit than the rather intrusive piccolo trumpets that one often hears in modern orchestras with this music. For this better fit, I can easily accept or ignore the occasional lack of response of these tricky “beasts”!
9. Chorale “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein“
The closing chorale confirmed: the natural trumpets have plenty of radiance, splendor, without ever being intrusive!
Pärt: Magnificat (1989)
Arvo Pärt (*1935) composed his Magnificat in 1989, for 5-voice a cappella choir (SSATB), often with further divided parts (e.g., TTB, SSATTB, SATBB). The Wikipedia article calls this a prime example of Pärt’s Tintinnabuli style.
Florian Helgath didn’t wait for more than a few seconds before starting Pärt’s Magnificat. And this, of course, was the first occasion for the Zürcher Sing-Akademie to demonstrate its qualities. We heard absolutely perfect intonation, no beats from impurities, not the slightest attempt to “alleviate” dissonances. And there was no drift in the pitch at all, even though the performance was substantially longer than the seven minutes quotes as “typical duration”.
There was extreme homogeneity through all voices, perfect balance and voicing. Occasionally, Helgath had the tenors use the head register, in order to avoid an imbalance. Never, one would hear individual voices: no primadonnas, male or female! And the volume was outstanding, the dynamic control extraordinary (more on that later).
One minor quibble: Florian Helgath conducted with large gestures throughout, which visually seemed mildly irritating. In soft, static parts, wouldn’t smaller gestures be sufficient? In any case: what counts is what reaches the ear—and there, I have no complaints!
Structure / Movements
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend “
- Chorale “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht“
- Recitativo accompagnato (Evangelist/T, Angel/S) “Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen” / “Fürchtet euch nicht“
- Recitativo accompagnato (B) “Was Gott dem Abraham verheißen“
- Aria (T) “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit“
- Chorale “Schaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall“
- Recitativo accompagnato (B) “So geht denn hin!“
- Aria (A) “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh’“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und alsobald war da bei dem Engel“
- Chorus “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe“
- Recitativo secco (B) “So recht, ihr Engel, jauchzt und singet“
- Chorale “Wir singen dir in deinem Heer“
Also here, Helgath kept the pause as short as a few seconds. Some may have found this a bit “short”, as it did not allow to “digest” Pärt’s music, to let it “sink in”. But that’s not meant to be criticism on my part.
This cantata with its “pastoral” instrumentation seemed far less affected by the acoustics of the venue (except maybe for the transparency). In the absence of timpani and trumpets, one could now really enjoy the beauty and the richness of the sound of flauto traverso, oboe d’amore, and oboe da caccia (too bad most people didn’t see them play!). Also the violins now contributed their proper share, and with the oboes, they formed a peaceful, serene dialog across the orchestra. The tempo was calm, swaying, a natural heartbeat, and the mellow sound of the theorbo as continuo instrument was an excellent fit!
11. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend “
Very pictorial recitative! With the advent of the angel, Benjamin Bruns raised his voice for a radiant little climax (not excessively dramatic, though), just to move to sotto voce instantly, for the final words (“and they were very afraid”).
12. Chorale “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht“
I liked this chorale much better than No.5: more fluent, natural language flow, with expressive dynamics (covering a much wider span than No.5): this is how I like chorales!
13. Recitativo accompagnato (Evangelist/T, Angel/S) “Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen” / “Fürchtet euch nicht“
Here, besides the tenor, we first met the soprano, Malin Hartelius, in the role of the angel. My instant reaction was: too dramatic, too much vibrato—both relative to the other voices, as well as (in my opinion) for the Christmas Oratorio: this is not opera—even less so than the passion oratorios!
15. Aria (T) “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet“
Beautiful playing in the orchestra, wich very detailed and careful articulation in the solo (flauto traverso). Unfortunately, Florian Helgath selected a purely “instrumental” tempo. This not only at times felt pushed, it also did not fit the character of Benjamin Bruns’ voice: the result that often, in coloraturas, Bruns sounded pushed, if not slightly lagging behind the accompaniment—sometimes even making him sound a tad heavy. It’s not his fault. Too bad for one of the highlights of the entire oratorio!
17. Chorale “Schaut hin! dort liegt im finstern Stall“
In strong contrast to No.12, this chorale was calm, serene, restrained, the voices nicely with the instrumental colla parte accompaniment: beautiful!
18. Recitativo accompagnato (B) “So geht denn hin!“
Expressive, imaginative—a very good accompagnato by Ludwig Mittelhammer
19. Aria (A) “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh’“
The second highlight in this cantata—from the score, as here, the choir only plays a secondary role. In the performance, Christina Daletska again lacked the necessary dynamic span & reserves (already in the long crescendo in the first notes, which sounded a bit static), as well as projection in the lower alto sections. On the other hand, she definitely has a warm, mellow timbre, and in the mezzo range, the projection is there, as well as the flexibility for the coloraturas.
On the other hand, I liked the natural (again gently swaying) tempo, and of course the sound of the oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia, diligently led by Philipp Mahrenholz.
20. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und alsobald war da bei dem Engel“
A strong contrast, suddenly dramatic: Benjamin Bruns’ short recitative is merely a transition to the following chorus:
21. Chorus “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe“
The only “real” choir in this cantata: transparent, clear and virtuosic in the coloraturas and trills: the advantages of a professional choral ensemble: perfect singing—I can’t think of any better performance! The only little snag is that the reverberation partly obscured the diction.
23. Chorale “Wir singen dir in deinem Heer“
Yes, there is no “big” chorus number in this cantata. Instead, there is this brief, but beautiful, serene and festive chorale with its swaying Siciliano accompaniment. It has only one drawback: it’s too short!!
Praetorius / Sandström: “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (1990)
“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen“ (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) by Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621) is one of the most well-known Christmas carols in German-speaking countries (and beyond). The Swedish composer Jan Sandström (*1954) wrote his own setting of this carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Det är en ros utsprungen) for two choirs a cappella, allegedly one of his signature compositions. The composition features a four-part chorus for Praetorius original carol, while an eight-part accompaniment chorus is hummed throughout.
Also here, Helgath continued quasi attacca. With this, he threw the audience into an entirely different world—and the music is truly otherworldly, ethereal, tender, purity and innocence. Major parts of this 5-minute piece—all a cappella—are 8-part, softest humming, softer even than the soft, 4-part Christmas carol: perfect vocal balance and homogeneity, even with a total of 12 voices, and down to the finest ppp! And beautiful dissonances! Only momentarily, for the “Und hat ein Blümlein bracht” (“It came, a flow’ret bright,”), the volume is elevated to mp, just to return to ppp and humming again, and of course maintaining perfect intonation throughout! A masterpiece in a masterful performance!
Structure / Movements
- Chorus “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren“
- Chorus “Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem“
- Recitativo accompagnato (B) “Er hat sein Volk getröst’t“
- Chorale “Dies hat er alles uns getan“
- Duet (S, A) “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und sie kamen eilend“
- Aria (A) “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder“
- Recitativo accompagnato (A) “Ja, ja! mein Herz soll es bewahren“
- Chorale “Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren“
- Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und die Hirten kehrten wieder um“
- Chorale “Seid froh, dieweil“
- Chorus (da capo) “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen“
24. Chorus “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen“
This was maybe the one choral piece where the dynamics reached the upper limit, almost bordering on dogmatic accentuation. The tempo was at the upper limit—not for the melodies, the instruments, but reaching the point where careful diction was no longer possible. No complaints about articulation and phrasing, though.
25. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren“
Virtuosic, transparent, light, yet retaining perfect voice control.
29. Duet (S, A) “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen“
Also here, Malin Hartelius‘ soprano had too much vibrato, which blurred her coloraturas / ornaments. For this music, a smoother, simpler, more lyrical voice is preferable. In this duet, Ludwig Mittelhammer could not really unfold his excellent voice: between the soprano and the bassoon and the two oboe d’amore, there wasnt’t really much “dynamic space” for him, except when the part moved up to the baritone range. But sure: the acoustics played their adverse role here, too.
30. Recitativo secco (Evangelist/T) “Und sie kamen eilend“
I was really touched by the subtlety, the warmth in the last verse, “Maria aber behielt alle diese Worte und bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen” (“Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart“).
31. Aria (A) “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder“
Compared to Christina Daletska‘s mellow, warm timbre, the solo violin—played of course without even traces of vibrato—sounded too direct. The violin (not always really flawless in the intonation) did not let the alto to unfold her presence, her voice. But also here, her part often reaches down to the lower end of her vocal range, where she was almost talking.
35. Chorale “Seid froh, dieweil“
Isn’t it interesting that at this point, Bach added a chorale in F♯ minor???
24. Chorus (da capo) “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen“
Maybe the above was just to emphasize the festive nature of the repeated opening choir? Here in particular, the young (young sounding, for sure!) soprano voices in the Zürcher Sing-Akademie highlighted the jubilant, joyful aspect of this final chorus.
Encore — Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248/6 — Chorale “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier“
For an encore, Florian Helgath selected the chorale “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier“, the No.5 (No.59 overall) in Cantata VI, “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben“ from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. In deviation from Bach’s original score, though, he had the choir perform this without basso continuo, i.e., a cappella.
This is one of the calmest, most peaceful, most serene of Bach’s chorales. It received a flawless performance in purest sound culture and once more perfect voice control, balance, etc.—and yet, infinitely touching, talking directly to the listener’s heart.
Encore — Bach: “Dona nobis pacem” from the Mass in B minor, BWV 232
The above chorale just served as introduction to the “real” encore, the “Dona nobis pacem“, the last part, with festive orchestral accompaniment, from Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232.
Needless to say that in the above chorale, the performance began and ended perfectly on pitch. After the final fermata, the performance did not end, but seamlessly moved on to the Dona nobis pacem from Bach’s Mass in B minor, now of course with the help of the full orchestra. This may seem questionable closing after the oratorio—however, the plea for peace certainly made sense, both theologically, as well as in reference to the current state of world politics, of the planet. It sent our a powerful message, reassuring and heart-warming message through the audience.
Sure, I could well imagine (and might ultimately prefer) a performance with a smaller choir / vocal ensemble, down to 1 – 3 singers per voice. This has the advantage of being more personal, of “speaking” to the individual listener (the listener’s heart) more directly. On the other hand, for a big church like this one, a bigger choir is certainly adequate. And it makes for a festive, impressive, more grandiose performance—one which probably reaches a bigger audience (smaller settings may still sound somewhat exotic, unusual).
- Zürcher Sing-Akademie (& Florian Helgath, choir master): ★★★★★
- Florian Helgath, conductor: ★★★½
- Malin Hartelius, soprano: ★★★
- Christina Daletska, mezzosoprano: ★★★
- Benjamin Bruns, tenor: ★★★★
- Ludwig Mittelhammer, bass: ★★★★
- Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich: ★★★★
- Venue / Acoustics: ★★
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