Voces Suaves, larynx Vokalensemble, Capricornus Consort
G.F. Handel: Dixit Dominus, HWV 232

Peterskirche, Basel, 2021-06-27

4.5-star rating

2021-07-06 — Original posting



Table of Contents


Introduction

Venue, Date & TimePeterskirche, Basel, 2021-06-27 17:00
Series / TitleMini Concert Series — Handel: Dixit Dominus
Reviews from related eventsPrevious Concert with Voces Suaves

Almost surprisingly quickly, the second wave of the pandemic is coming to an end in Switzerland. Concert life, which remained suspended for almost all of the 2020/2021 season, is allowed to resume for the last 1 – 2 weeks of the season. Some restrictions remain for the time being, such as wearing masks, some limitations in audience sizes for indoors events, physical distancing. However, the re-opening still is felt as a big relief to all musicians and music lovers. I was happy to be invited to two concerts in Basel on the same day!


The Venue

I can’t resist briefly talking about the church and its organ. The Basel area is rich in valuable, historic church buildings (such as the Peterskirche, completed 1388). Moreover, it is also unusually rich in precious organs. One example is in this church, placed on the rood screen between the choir and the nave. It’s not quite as grandiose as it could be, as the original, famous 1712 organ by Andreas Silbermann (1678 – 1734) was dismantled in 1895 and replaced by a romantic instrument. Some 60 years ago, that second organ reached the end of its life, and luckily, it wasn’t replaced with a modern instrument.

Rather, the community was able to recuperate an original organ housing by Andreas Silbermann’s son, Johann Andreas Silbermann (1712 – 1783), along with at least some of the original pipes, as part of an 1968 mechanical organ work by Neidhart & Lhôte (now Manufacture d’orgues St.-Martin S.A.). I believe I have attended a brief demonstration of this organ some 25 years ago. This concert, however, wasn’t an opportunity to hear it. As I’ll mention below, the continuo instrument in this concert was a simpler chest orgen. This was definitely more appropriate for music by George Frideric Handel. But back to the concert:


The Artists

Voces Suaves

This was my second encounter with members of the vocal ensemble Voces Suaves, after a first concert in Basel, on 2020-10-08. For information on Voces Suaves see that earlier concert review. The ensemble consists of 8 singers (SSSATTBarB), of which three participated in this joint concert, see below. The bass singer Tobias Wicky founded Voces Suaves in 2012. Since 2016, the ensemble works without a permanent chorus master, and without conductor. The singers study and practice their repertoire as a collective.

larynx Vokalensemble Basel

This concert was the result of a cooperation between two vocal ensembles. Voces Suaves cooperated with the larynx Vokalensemble Basel, founded by Jakob Pilgram in 2005. Jakob Pilgram now is chorus master of the ensemble. This is a slightly bigger group of singers (7 sopranos, 5 altos, 5 tenors, 5 basses). Two of the sopranos and one tenor are actually also members of Voces Suaves. In this concert, 8 singers from the larynx Vokalensemble performed in the second part of the program, namely

  • Canto I (soprano):
    • Gunta Smirnova (larynx)
    • Florence Renaut (larynx)
  • Canto II (soprano):
    • Kristine Jaunalksne (larynx)
    • Christina Boner (Voces Suaves & larynx)
  • Alto:
    • Jan Thomer (Voces Suaves)
    • Anne Bierwirth (larynx)
  • Tenor:
    • Mirko Ludwig (larynx)
    • Jakob Pilgram (larynx)
  • Bass:
    • Matthias Helm (larynx)
    • Tobias Wicky (Voces Suaves)

Both vocal ensembles consist of singers with professional voice education. Besides the sizes of the ensembles, one key difference between the two groups is their musical scope. Voces Suaves has its primary focus on music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The larynx Vokalensemble is somewhat less specific. It states that it specializes on “chamber music[-like] performance of little known (but historically significant) and challenging vocal works”.

Capricornus Consort Basel

The Capricornus Consort Basel exists since 2006. It features a regular staff of 8 instrumentalists. The following artists performed in this concert:

  • Peter Barczi, baroque violin
  • Eva Borhi, baroque violin
  • Matthias Jäggi, baroque viola
  • Joanna Michalak, baroque viola
  • Daniel Rosin, baroque cello
  • Michael Bürgin, violone
  • Julian Behr, theorbo
  • David Blunden, chest organ

All instrumentalists perform on original or reconstructed baroque instruments, with gut strings and baroque bows. The central basso continuo instrument was a chest organ. I only heard flue pipes in this concert, no reeds.


Program

A program entirely devoted to music by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759):

Setting, etc.

I was offered an ideal “reviewer’s and photographer’s seat” in the middle of the first row on the rear balcony. Not surprisingly, the musicians were able to mobilize a fairly big audience. The nave and the rear balcony were about as full as the (remaining) restrictions permitted, i.e., half-full. There were two instances of the concert. This one at 17:00h was the first instance, the second one was given at 19:00h.


Concert & Review

Handel: Trio Sonata in G major, op.5/4, HWV 399

The “Seven Sonatas or Trios for two Violins or German Flutes with a Thorough Baß for the Harpsichord or Violoncello Composed by Mr. Handel, Opera Quinta“, or, in “modern speak”: Handel’s 7 Trio Sonatas for Two Violins (or Transverse Flutes) and Basso Continuo, op.5 were published and sold by John Walsh, in 1739. The Sonata in G major, op.5/4, HWV 399, features the following five movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. A tempo ordinario — Allegro, non presto
  3. Passacaille
  4. Gigue: Presto
  5. Menuet: Allegro moderato

Note that—not unusual for G.F. Handel—all five movements in this sonata are “borrowed” or reused from other works by the composer. See the document by the Handel Institute that I referred to above. At Handel’s time, that was common practice among composers. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is a prime example for this.

Movement Order??

I checked three versions of the score:

All three of these editions show the above sequence of movements, so one should assume that this is the original order. In this concert, however, the movements 1 and 2, as well as 4 and 5 appeared in opposite order:

  1. A tempo ordinario — Allegro, non presto
  2. Allegro
  3. Passacaille
  4. Menuet: Allegro moderato
  5. Gigue: Presto

And I must say: after this performance, the order presented here is absolutely compelling, whereas the original order feels “wrong”. I’ll get back to this in my comments below.

Instrumentation

In all of the movements, excepting the Menuet, the score has voices for two violins, a viola ad libitum, and the basso continuo. The Menuet lacks the viola part. The Walsh and Chrysander editions just feature the bass line with ciphers. In contrast to that, the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe from 1967 leaves the ciphers, but has the keyboard part fully written out by Max Schneider (1875 – 1967). That’s of course helpful for less experienced practitioners, while experienced musicians will either set out the continuo ciphering themselves, or maybe even read the ciphers on-the-fly and improvise the details.

The Performance

Staff

The Capricornus Consort Basel positioned itself on the left side of the crossing, around (and under) the rostrum. The musicians: Peter Barczi and Eva Borhi (violins), Matthias Jäggi (viola, except for the Menuet). In the continuo: Daniel Rosin (cello), Michael Bürgin (violone, except for the Menuet), Julian Behr (theorbo), and David Blunden (chest organ).

Sound

Right from the first tones, I noted that the sound of the ensemble was fitting ideally into the venue, i.e., its size (and style!), the amount and duration of the reverberation. The characteristic sound of gut strings provided the necessary clarity, the chest organ filled the venue with the warm, rounded sound of its flue stops. This was of course further rounded and filled by cello and violone. The theorbo contributed the necessary rhythmic clarity to the continuo. And yet, neither of these instruments were ever protruding inappropriately, and the balance with the violins (& the viola) was ideal.

The 1.5 years of musical starvation imposed by the pandemic may have contributed to the intensity of the impressions. Still: even just in terms of sound, the concert experience could hardly have been any better!

II. A tempo ordinario — Allegro, non presto

In the outline, the movement resembles a typical French overture, with a slow(er) first part full of punctuations, followed by a joyful, lively fugato as second part. Of course, it’s not meant to be French style (it lacks the majestic grandeur of a slow, double-punctuated French Ouverture opening).

The Capricornus Consort Basel of course did not try casting this movement into a French Ouverture. However, the festive sound and attitude in the A tempo ordinario (repeated, of course) offered plenty of “overture feeling”. Not the least thanks to the richness of the soundscape.

In the Allegro, non presto part, the two violin voices proved absolutely, admirably equivalent (hardly distinguishable from the sound).That part was not just so joyful, but also light and transparent, yet so detailed and careful in the articulation, wonderfully enriched with casual ornaments. Marvelous!

I. Allegro

A combination of festive attitude in the staccato chords and swaying dance in the segments with lively semiquaver garlands. Detailed and well-crafted in the dynamics, with full, rounded sound, yet always light and transparent. The 6/8 formally asks for counting in half-bars. However, two Allegro beats per bar would make this Presto in the quavers. Here, the pace felt absolutely relaxed and natural—without ever losing tension, though.

III. Passacaille

Clearly the highlight of the sonata: the longest and richest movement by far. For one, Handel’s setting is absolutely wonderful: over the almost 5 minutes of that movement, the 8-bar Passacaglia is not just repeated monotonously. Rather, Handel sometimes hides it in ornamented variations (while holding on to the harmonic scheme), occasionally switches to a minor key. And above that, the violins flourish in jubilant lines, be it note-by-note, in parallel, or in canon-like dialog. The Capricornus Consort Basel further contributes by varying the dynamics and the instrumentation in the basso continuo. I particularly noted one variation without the organ (theorbo, violone and cello of course still have plenty of means to fill the harmonies).

V. Menuet: Allegro moderato

As this movement has no viola part, the artists also dropped the violone from the continuo. This resulted in a more subtle, but still perfectly balanced sound. A peace- and playful, relaxed movement, so subtle, lovely, and very careful / diligent in the dynamics! The movement is in AABA’BA’ form, i.e., (A)(B-A) with repeats for both parts. Handel did not specify any dynamics, but I found it particularly fitting, touching that in the first pass of the second part, the “A” segment appeared pp.

IV. Gigue: Presto

Is there any better ending to a sonata than this jolly, dancing Gigue with its jumping punctuations? And then, in the second part, those joking, almost grotesquely exaggerated crescendi on final notes in a phrase: I spontaneously smiled! This very much reminded me of moments in the orchestral suite Burlesque de Quixotte, TWV 55:G10 by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767). Overall: a perfect last dance!

Mis-Ordered Movements?

I find it unintelligible why Walsh published this sonata with the first and last pairs of movements in the given order (and that all later publications followed suit). To me, it just does not make sense to have the “overture” movement in second position, and to end the sonata with a Menuet, rather than with a Gigue (this Gigue!).

Did Walsh get this mixed up, and Handel never checked the published version? If so, that seems odd, as the “Opera Quinta” (op.5) on the title page suggests an “official, valid release” by the composer. It may still be, though, that (at Handel’s time) publishers added opus numbers to their own liking, to suit their publishing (a.k.a. marketing) needs.

Conclusion

Wasn’t this the perfect way to restart concert life after 1.5 years of silence due to the pandemic? Richness, joy, warmth, beauty and love. Handel’s music covered it all. And it opened the listener’s heart for a new beginning!

A top-class performance, both in terms of interpretation, as well as technically/instrumentally. That’s of course not much of a surprise in Basel, given the presence of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, one of the world’s leading music academies and research institutions in the area of early music and historically informed performance.

Rating: ★★★★★

Handel: Psalm “Dixit Dominus“, HWV 232

Handel (1685 – 1759) completed his Psalm “Dixit Dominus“, HWV 232, in 1707, while he was living in Italy. It apparently is Handel’s oldest surviving autograph. Handel divided the Psalm into nine movements:

  1. Chorus: “Dixit Dominus Domino meo” (The Lord said unto my Lord)
  2. Aria (alto solo): “Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion” (The Lord shall send the rod of thy power out of Sion)
  3. Aria (soprano solo): “Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae splendoribus sanctorum” (In the day of thy power)
  4. Chorus: “Juravit Dominus et non paenitebit eum” (The Lord swore, and will not repent)
  5. Chorus: “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum” (Thou art a priest for ever)
  6. Soloists and chorus: “Dominus a dextris tuis” (The Lord upon thy right hand)
  7. Chorus: “Judicabit in nationibus” (He shall judge the nations)
  8. Chorus: “Conquassabit” (and shatter the skulls in the land of the many)
  9. Soprano duet and chorus: “De torrente in via bibet” (He shall drink of the brook in the way)
  10. Chorus: “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto” (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit).

The score calls for 5 voice chorus and soloists (both SSATB), and also the instrumental part is for 5 voices (2 violins, 2 violas, basso continuo). The Wikipedia entry has Nos. 7 and 8 as one single number, my score follows the Händel Gesamtausgabe, Band 38, pp. 53–126, edited by Friedrich Chrysander, published 1872. This uses the movement scheme above.

The Performance

For the staff, see the information above. On the part of the Capricornus Consort Basel, the only change here was the addition of a second violist, Joanna Michalak. The instrumentalists retained their position around the rostrum.

For the singers, the pandemic imposed a minimum distance of 1.5 meters between the singers. With this, the singers (on individual pedestals) extended to the far right, with Jakob Pilgram (tenor and founder of the larynx Vokalensemble) usually hidden behind a pillar, almost standing in the lateral nave. The four Cantus voices occupied the first row.

Jakob Pilgram wasn’t conducting. Rather, Peter Barczi acted as “point of coordination”—inconspicuously, through discreet gestures.

I. “Dixit Dominus Domino meo

By now, the listener’s ears had adapted to the acoustics and the sound of the ensemble / consort. Still, in the introduction it felt amazing how the instrumentalists were able to “fill” the venue, even with a single instrument per voice. And one never had the impression that the musicians needed to “force” the tone. The acoustics fully supported the ensemble’s differentiated dynamics, allowed them to retain their presence also in p / echo effects in the lively instrumental opening.

Singers (Choir & Soli)

The vocal part alternates between tutti and solos, both of which came out of the same body of 10 singers. As expected for professional voices, articulation was clear, precise, coordination never an issue, diction and pronunciation impeccable (though never protruding excessively). The clarity in the articulation made the long half notes in each of the solo parts stand out, allowed the crescendo on these notes flourish. The dynamics control was excellent, allowing each of the voices in lively polyphonic parts to express / come forward with its own dynamic phrasing & highlights.

There was an excellent acoustic balance between singers and instrumentalists, and also within the singers, the balance was excellent. I don’t contradict myself when I state that among the vocalists the splendid tenor voices stood out: very linear, plenty of “ping” / projection. I also liked the clarity and homogeneity in the joint soprano voices in the long chorale / cantus firmus line “Donec ponam“): the composer wanted this to stand out like a monument.
★★★★½

II. Aria Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion”

The following aria sets a strong contrast. The altus Jan Thomer was accompanied by cello and organ. He exposed its warm, soft timbre. Especially in the high alto register, his voice effortlessly projected throughout the venue. And then, of course, the music: already at young age, Handel proved a master in melodic invention, producing a wonderful, harmonious dialog between solo and continuo / cello!
★★★★

III. Aria “Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae splendoribus sanctorum

Kristine Jaunalksne‘s soprano voice also features a full, well-balanced timbre. It is slightly more dramatic than Jan Thomer’s altus. The soprano used her natural, well-controlled vibrato to let long notes bloom.
★★★★

IV. “Juravit Dominus et non paenitebit eum

A well-balanced performance between choir & accompaniment. The one minor drawback was that in the Allegro parts with its fugato and virtuosic dialog moments, the reverberation was somewhat limiting the clarity of the articulation, the transparency. There is a stark contrast between the Allegro parts and the Grave opening and interjections. For the most part in this score, Handel did not use dynamic annotations. Here, however, the first Allegro ends in p, then pp, and the last Allegro even has an instrumental ending with piano — piano piano — più piano — pianiss. — pianississ. And indeed: the effect was stunning!
★★★★★ (instr.) / ★★★★ (singers)

V. “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum

An excellent ensemble performance and sound, and one of Handel’s early masterworks, with its dialog between the firm, chorale-like melody in crotchets, surrounded by the fugato in gently flowing semiquaver figures in the other voices. The central number, and at the same time the clear highlight of the performance so far!
★★★★★

VI. “Dominus a dextris tuis

A busily running, constantly flowing quaver line in the bass. The violins propose a canon-like imitation which is then picked up by the two soprano soloists (Christina Boner and Kristine Jaunalksne), later joined by altus (Jan Thomer) and tenor (Mirko Ludwig), and finally, the bass soloist (Matthias Helm). Excellent voices altogether. The music then passes over to the choir, i.e., all 10 voices combined. In general, balance and clarity were excellent. Just maybe the basses seemed the least favored by the acoustics, i.e., between the quavers in the orchestra, the competing other voices, and the reverberation, they occasionally were in slight danger of “drowning”.
★★★★½

VII. Judicabit in nationibus

Another musical highlight: rich, grandiose, splendid, both the music and the performance. And in Handel’s masterful setting, the choir retains transparency and presence despite the dense, busy instrumental accompaniment.
★★★★½

VIII. Conquassabit

Already the preceding two movements appeared attacca. Here, this happens again, but with a surprise. After a surprisingly short ending and a short general rest, the Conquassabit (he smashed / shattered [the skulls]) follows. The repeated staccato crotchets make this sound like “conquassa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha….” seems to illustrate the stomping / smashing on the skulls. An amazing effect! At the same time, this instantly reminded me of the staccato passage in the opening movement in “Winter” from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Handel’s music, however (let alone the performance here), is pictorial and gripping, but really far too beautiful to stick with the scary scene that it depicts.
★★★★½

IX. “De torrente in via bibet”

A really sublime movement! Excellent in the subtle staccato (rather: portato) accompaniment with its intricate harmonic progression. High above that very exposed duet of two sopranos, extremely challenging in the intonation. The singers (Gunta Smirnova and Florence Renaut) mastered this very well. Their intonation was secure, flawless, infallible!

My only quibbles: I observed occasional Nachdrücken on long notes. Also, occasionally, the two semiquaver notes at the transitions in the descending line (especially in the last phrase) stood out a little too much. These notes don’t require extra highlighting. In the end, though, the subtleness in the instrumental pp ending compensated for this…
★★★★½

X. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto

The closing “Gloria” is a virtuosic finale, full of coloraturas. A grandiose fugue again!

In bar 55, the music switches from the initial pace (Tempo ordinario, presumably) to Allegro, for a final fugue. Was it the reverberation that caused the tempo transition to remain slightly obscure at my end, despite the short general rest? Handel’s music is highly dense. Here again, it seemed hardest for the bass singers to maintain their presence in all the complex polyphony. Plus, the tempo probably was at the limit were the semiquaver figures in danger of getting “swallowed”, also given the reverberation in this venue. However, the pull in Handel’s enthralling ending made listeners forget about such possible, minor issues.
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Conclusions

A most memorable concert! It was desperately needed after the long disruption due to the pandemic. As a resident of the Zurich area, I’m envious, though…


Author: Rolf Kyburz

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