Voces Suaves, Ori Harmelin
de Wert, Madrigals and Canzonettas

Paul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2020-10-08

3.5-star rating

2020-10-16 — Original posting


Voces Suaves (© Voces Suaves / Markus Räber)
Voces Suaves (© Voces Suaves / Markus Räber)

Table of contents


Introduction

Venue, date & timePaul Sacher Saal, Don Bosco, Basel, 2020-10-08 19:30
SeriesIl Pianto del Rosignol — Giaches de Wert
OrganizerVoces Suaves, Basel
Earlier, related event(s)

A New Venue

This concert was an encounter with a venue so far unknown—not just for me, but a new venue altogether. Don Bosco is a recently established cultural center in the eastern part of the city of Basel (close to the Rhine river, some 2 km from Basel’s main station). It actually was a Roman-Catholic church from 1935. Since then, the society as a whole (especially in urban areas) has secularized. Only a third of the population in Basel is a member of one of the three major Christian communities in Switzerland, and so, numerous churches have since lost their purpose.

The Concert Hall

Don Bosco’s church building is a protected monument, so the hull remained untouched. However, the inside has altered substantially. The nave now is a mid-size concert hall with 500 seats, the lateral naves have lost their function and serve as access parth for the audience. The rear part of the nave keeps the organ balcony with its instrument, but is otherwise filled with an ascending auditorium with 10 rows of seats (benches). A lot of effort went into acoustic (re-)modeling. One of the prominent features are the panels that can be moved (opened / closed) to change the acoustic characteristics.

In honor of Basel’s well-known conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999), the hall now bears the name Paul Sacher Saal. There are also two studios, as well as a second, smaller hall, the Heinz Holliger Auditorium, named after the Swiss composer and conductor Heinz Holliger (*1939).

The cultural center Don Bosco is now the home of various musical institutions, such as the Basel Sinfonietta, the Kammerorchester Basel, as well as the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and others.


The Artists

Voces Suaves

The vocal ensemble Voces Suaves (“sweet voices”) emerged in 2012, with the goal to perform vocal works, primarily from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It’s not a choir. A core of 8 professional singers perform as soloists, and since 2016, Voces Suaves operates without conductor. The founder is a member of the ensemble, the baritone Tobias Wicky:

  • Lia Andres, soprano
  • Christina Boner, soprano
  • Mirjam Wernli, soprano
  • Jan Thomer, altus
  • Dan Dunkelblum, tenor
  • Raphael Höhn, tenor
  • Tobias Wicky, baritone
  • Davide Benedetti, bass

For this concert, unfortunately, Davide Benedetti had to call off his participation. At very short notice (just two days!), the bass Lisandro Abadie stepped in as replacement.

Most of the singers have ties with the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. If necessary / appropriate, Voces Suaves can resort to a pool of instrumentalists. In this concert, the Israeli lutenist Orí Harmelin, now living in Basel, joined the singers, playing lute and theorbo.

Repertoire

Voces Suaves focuses on Italian madrigals from the Renaissance and early Baroque eras, German early baroque works, but also Italian masses and oratorios. Apart from the dominant composers Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 16453) and Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1682), Voces Suaves also is covering lesser known composers. One current focus of Voces Suaves is the Franco-Flemish late Renaissance composer Giaches de Wert (1535 – 1596), also known as Jacques or Jaches de Wert, or Giaches de Vuert.

Giaches de Wert

Little known today, de Wert was a very influential composer, central to the development of the madrigal, the predominant form of secular vocal composition in the Renaissance. For many years, Giaches de Wert, was associated with the Gonzaga family. In 1565, he moved to Mantua, which explains his influence on Claudio Monteverdi.

Madrigals and Canzonette

Madrigals are polyphonic (2 – 6, sometimes 8 voices) and typically unaccompanied. Giaches de Wert was a prolific composer of madrigals and Canzonette. The latter are lighter in style than madrigals, often also just for one voice. Giaches de Wert published 12 entire books of madrigals and canzonette: Il primo libro de madrigali from 1558, up to Il duodecimo libro de madrigali (published 1608, after the composer’s death), plus additional books, up to a total of 17 volumes. In this concert, Voces Suaves selected madrigals from six of the books, plus a piece from the first book of canzonette.

From Giaches de Wert’s oeuvre, Voces Suaves performed 16 madrigals and canzonette from the above volumes. Discussing these in detail is beyond the scope of this article, nor do I want to add separate comments on all individual pieces. Rather, I decided to create a review that is different from most others: a “picture review” with photos to every piece, along with its title and the names of the artists involved. With very few exceptions, I moved my performance comments to the beginning of the block sections below.

Program

Voces Suaves selected a set of late madrigals from six of the composer’s books, plus three canzonette from the first book of canzonette villanelle from 1589:

  • 1 madrigal from Il settimo libro de madrigali, 1581
  • 1 madrigal from Il lauro verde, madrigali a sei voci di diversi autori, 1583
  • 2 madrigals from L’ottavo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1586
  • 3 madrigals from Il nono libro de madrigali a cinque e sei voci, 1588
  • 3 canzonette from Il primo libro delle canzonette villanelle, 1589
  • 5 madrigals from Il decimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1591
  • 1 madrigal from L’undecesimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1595

Lute and Theorbo

Orì Harmelin accompanied many of the madrigals (and the canzonetta) on his theorbo or (in one case) the lute. In addition, he performed two compositions of his own, a Passacaglia (theorbo) and a Ricercar (lute)—both in Renaissance style. On top of that, in the very center of the program, he performed a Calata ala spagnola by the composer and lutenist Joan Ambrosio Dalza, a composer of which no life details survived. All we know is that in 1508 he contributed the Intabolatura de lauto, the fourth volume in a series of music collections, which the editor / printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466 – 1539) published in Venice.

Setting, etc.

My wife and I had seats at the right edge of row 10 in the floor part of the nave—which allowed me to take photos during the concert (thanks to Tobias Wicky for the free tickets!). The COVID-19 pandemic imposed physical distancing in the audience, in addition to the obligation to wear a facial mask throughout the concert. With this, the floor seating was practically “full”, and some 20% of the audience was occupying seats in the ascending part of the auditorium.


Concert & Review

The program was loosely grouped into four blocks. Apart from the time for singers to return to their seat and others to join the performing group there was no intermission. So, the block arrangement mainly became apparent through the lute / theorbo pieces at the beginning of all but the first block:

  1. Five madrigals
  2. Passacaglia for theorbo (Harmelin), followed by three madrigals
  3. Calata ala spagnola for lute (Dalza), followed by a canzonetta and two madrigals
  4. Ricercar for lute (Harmelin), followed by two canzonette and three madrigals

The overall title / motto, “Il Pianto del Rosignol” relates to the title “Quel rosignol che sì soave piagne” of one of the madrigals on a sonnet by Petrarca (the last piece in the first block, see below).


Block #1

First Impressions, Acoustics

For the first minutes, my attention was maybe less on the actual performance, but on the sound, the voices, and their interaction with the acoustics of the venue. The latter reportedly was carefully optimized, apparently for a reverberation time of 1.5 seconds. The wooden ceiling is flat, the acoustic panels were closed, which presumably should make the venue more resonant. Of course, one should not jump to conclusions in such a first-off concert. Voces Suaves of course had done rehearsals in the location, but the presence of an audience (however small it is) alters the acoustics. On top of that, an ever so small amount of stage anxiety further contributes to initial adaptation issues.

My impression was that it took parts of the first madrigal(s) for the ensemble to “grow together” in terms of coordination, vocal homogeneity (dynamics, vibrato, possibly also vocalization). This may also be in the nature of the madrigal, which started in a canon-like fashion: initially, I listened to individual voices, and after the “adaptation period”, the focus altered towards the sound of the ensemble.

Ensemble Sound

As expected, Voces Suaves consists of excellent voices. Not opera stars, necessarily, but definitely well-trained, very well fitting into the ensemble in terms of color, volume, and projection. Choir sound is of course not intended with one singer per voice, but the key is transparency and balance. I had the impression of an excellent ensemble sound, there were no (male or female) “primadonnas” standing out from the group.

Diction, Intonation

Also, diction, vocalization of the (ancient) Italian texts were excellent (not exaggerated, certainly). One cannot expect the listener to understand every word, of course—the key is that the ensemble captures the spirit, the atmosphere of a madrigal and the underlying text—and here, the singers left very little to wish for.

Certainly in the first block, I found the intonation to be firm, flawless, with purity of the harmonies. The latter is particularly relevant in the final chord in a madrigal—often the most critical one. Also in pieces without “continuo foundation” through the theorbo, I did not notice any substantial drift in the pitch. Further, I enjoyed the careful dynamics, the contrasts, the f, as well as the pp, the sotto voce (e.g., in the male voices in Tirsi morir volea), and the diligent crescendo (e.g., in Quel rosignol che sì soave piagne).

Pieces and Photos

Ninfe leggiadre e voi almi pastori

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il lauro verde, madrigali a sei voci di diversi autori, 1583

Lia Andres (soprano), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus), Christina Boner (soprano); Ori Harmelin (theorbo)


Del vago Mincio sull’adorne sponde

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il decimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1591

Lia Andres (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Christina Boner (soprano)


Tirsi morir volea (Dialogo a sette)

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il settimo libro de madrigali, 1581

Lia Andres (soprano), Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Christina Boner (soprano), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus)


Tu canti e canto anch’io

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il decimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1591

Lia Andres (soprano), Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Christina Boner (soprano), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone)


Quel rosignol che sì soave piagne

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il nono libro de madrigali a cinque e sei voci, 1588. The text is a sonnet by Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374)

Lia Andres (soprano), Jan Thomer (altus), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Mirjam Wernli (soprano)


Block #2

Acoustic Support

To me, the least satisfactory aspect of the concert was not with the singers, but with the venue: even though the acoustic panels were set to “reflecting”, the acoustic support appeared to have limitations. This primarily affected the two lute pieces at the beginning of blocks 3 and 4. The lute simply sounded “lost in space”: details must have been very hard to hear to listeners in the rear of the venue. The theorbo at least had the advantage of the stronger resonances in the longer bass strings.

However, even for the singers, I was sometimes hoping for more “support” from the venue. For example, ppp segments occasionally seemed to lack “power”, i.e., resonance, slightly falling off in presence. Particularly the bass seemed to be at a slight disadvantage, mostly in the above Quel rosignol che sì soave piagne. I should be careful here, though, as Lisandro Abadie was stepping in at short notice and therefore may have taken some time to find out how best to fit into the overall balance. In Forsennata gridava, the bass voice certainly showed sufficient presence.

In terms of clarity, transparency, and spatial definition, this is certainly an excellent concert hall, however, it may not be equally suited for all genres / instrumental and vocal configurations. The Web site states that the hall is not ideal for orchestra sizes above 60 – 70 musicians. My impression is that it also has limitations for baroque chamber music and more intimate settings / genres.

Vocal Qualities

I had some “vocal quibbles” with the singers—though, these had little impact on the overall experience. As mentioned, the vibrato was largely harmonious and natural. However, there were moments when soprano voices were vibrating somewhat nervously (an overstrained diaphragm?). Similarly, as stated, the vocal colors were well-adapted. Rare exceptions were when middle voices occasionally stood out in color / vocalization. For me as a listener it was impossible to tell whether this was in the nature of the voice(s), or in the individual coloring of a vowel.

The other “feature” I noted was a certain tendency towards “Nachdrücken“. It sounds odd to mention this for singers, as it is a “disease” that most often affects string instruments, when a musician accelerates the bow when approaching the (upper or lower) end, making a tone in a short, but undesirable crescendo. Here, some singers appeared to be in the habit of adding an ever so short, but quite noticeable swelling around the change between notes.

Intonation Challenges

Not all of Giaches de Wert’s madrigals and canzonette are equally harmonious—there are certainly also vocal challenges! Naturally, voices are exposed in beginnings where individual voices are joining in one by one (in the fashion of a canon). Voces Suaves in general had very little problems here—even though such beginnings sounded a tad more fragile.

I sensed the biggest challenges in segments with more “archaic”, dissonant harmonies, such as in Datemi pace, o duri miei pensieri, which momentarily made me think of music by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613). I can’t say that in such moments the intonation was ever “off”—but I occasionally did sense the challenge, especially in middle voices (which are naturally more demanding in this area). That’s not criticism, merely an observation: these madrigals come with their share of challenges! And within the first two blocks, Datemi pace, o duri miei pensieri was the piece and the performance I liked most!

Pieces and Photos

Orí Harmelin: Passacaglia for Theorbo

As mentioned above, the theorbo would have profited from a smaller, more intimate and more resonant venue. Sure, the passacaglia theme in the bass strings retained its presence throughout the piece, but the upper register sounded rather weak, at least until one adjusted one’s hearing to the finer details.

For as much as I could tell from the tenth row, Orí Harmelin did not try forcing the sound to overcome the acoustic challenges, but presented an excellent, subtle performance of his Passacaglia—very much in the style of 16th century lute music. It probably would have taken an expert to find features (e.g., the occasional harmonic progression) to recognize that this was not an original from the Renaissance. As typical for a passacaglia, the upper voices started off as simple accompaniment, but then gradually grew into being the primary part, more virtuosic, heavily ornamented—beautiful music, needless to say.

Orí Harmelin (theorbo)


Usciva homai dal molle e fresco grembo

Source: Giaches de Wert, L’ottavo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1586. The text is from Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso (1544 – 1595).

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Jan Thomer (altus), Lia Andres (soprano)


Forsennata gridava

Source: Giaches de Wert, L’ottavo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1586. Also this text is from Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso (1544 – 1595).

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Christina Boner (soprano)


Datemi pace, o duri miei pensieri

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il decimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1591. This text is from the collection of songs and sonnets Canzoniere by Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374)

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Orí Harmelin (theorbo), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus)


Block #3

Acoustics Again?

Occasionally, I felt acoustic limitations not in soft passages, but at the “upper end”. In Dica che vuoi, for example, the acoustics appeared to limit the effect, the power in dramatic passages. Not sure whether this was a limitation in projection / power of the voices, or (rather / more likely) a question of the relation between the size of the venue and the size of the vocal ensemble. It isn’t a general observation, however—see below.

Pieces and Photos

Joan Ambrosio Dalza: Calata ala spagnola

Source: Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Intabolatura de lauto libro quarto, 1508. No doubt: beautiful music—artful, virtuosic. However, as stated above, the lute felt a bit “lost in space”, too intimate for this venue, I’m afraid.Interestingly, the way this Intabolatura suddenly ended gave me the impression that the piece is incomplete?

Orí Harmelin (lute)


Dica che vuoi

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il primo libro delle canzonette villanelle, 1589

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus)


Ecco ch’un altra volta

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il nono libro de madrigali a cinque e sei voci, 1588

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus)


Mia benigna fortuna

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il nono libro de madrigali a cinque e sei voci, 1588. This is another text from the collection of songs and sonnets Canzoniere by Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374). Among the pieces in this concert, this must have been one of the most challenging in the intonation, particularly in the middle voices, similar to (maybe even more than) Datemi pace, o duri miei pensieri—see my notes above.

Christina Boner (soprano), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus)


Block #4

Solo and Drama / Theater

The last block widened up the spectrum in various ways. An artfully polyphonic Ricercar for lute solo (sadly, again a partially lost effort) formed the introduction to the only madrigal for solo voice (soprano) and lute. Christina Boner performed this with her clear, expressive and well-timbred voice, though approaching the limits of her range in the lowest notes. This is the only madrigal where Orí Harmelin did the accompaniment on the lute—a configuration which definitely would have profited from a more intimate setting.

The next expansion was with the canzonetta “M’ha punto Amor con velenoso dardo”, which clearly wasn’t just poetic, but contained rapid “babbling” and dramatic / excited passages—short, but very entertaining! Even more into the area of theater: the antiphonal Non mi conosci tu?, a dialogue with three singers on either side. This aspect progressed further in the last piece, Che fai, Alma?, a little stage drama, now with seven singers performing. And: the more singers were performing, the stronger the performance seemed to get—did the theater gestures, the action free the singers’ minds? An excellent closure of the program!

Pieces and Photos

Orí Harmelin: Ricercar for Lute

Orí Harmelin (lute)


Amor, che sai in qual stat’io mi viva

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il decimo libro de madrigali, 1591.

Orí Harmelin (lute), Christina Boner (soprano)


M’ha punto Amor con velenoso dardo

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il primo libro delle canzonette villanelle, 1589

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Lia Andres (soprano)


Voglia mì vien per dar al cor ristoro

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il primo libro delle canzonette villanelle, 1589

Christina Boner (soprano), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Lia Andres (soprano)


Non mi conosci tu?

Source: Giaches de Wert, Il decimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1591

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Jan Thomer (altus), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Lia Andres (soprano)


Che fai, Alma?

Source: Giaches de Wert, L’undecesimo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, 1595

Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Christina Boner (soprano), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus), Lia Andres (soprano)


Encore — A Wedding Madrigal

As encore, Tobias Wicky announced a “piece about European integration” (a highly controversial topic in Switzerland!). This was a wedding madrigal—again by Giaches de Wert—on the marriage between Archduchess Princess Barbara of Austria (House Habsburg, 1539 – 1572) and Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1533 – 1597). It was the second one of Alfonso’s three marriages.

This turned out a little piece of theater, where one side / group of four singers represented the German/Austrian party, while the other side represented Italy. This was with all eight singers performing (for the first time in the concert), in madrigal with “action” through gestures & facial mimics—and with beautiful, full sonority.

Lia Andres (soprano), Mirjam Wernli (soprano), Raphael Höhn (tenor), Tobias Wicky (baritone), Ori Harmelin (theorbo), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Dan Dunkelblum (tenor), Jan Thomer (altus), Christina Boner (soprano)


Conclusions

16 pieces by one and the same composer in a concert of around 70 minutes may seem rather restrictive (“a lot of one and the same”). However, it “worked” amazingly well, thanks to the large variety in Giaches de Wert’s madrigals and canzonette, both in character, as well as in vocal setting. As Tobias Wicky told me after the concert, this is part of a major project on the music by Giaches de Wert (with three planned CD recordings) that Voces Suaves is tackling in this and the coming years. A highly commendable effort for music / a composer that is heard so rarely these days: hats off and congrats!


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