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It All Began With a Painting — Bach, The Monteverdi Choir, and the Scheides

It is summer in Princeton, and one again, William and Judith Scheide are in a sharing mood. To the delight of Princeton choral aficionados, the Scheides brought the renowned Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by the equally as renowned conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to New Jersey. But, as Judith Scheide explained in her pre-concert remarks, this performance was about more than the music.

Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium was in part inspired by a portrait of J.S. Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in the 1740s and lost to obscurity after Bach’s death in 1750. The portrait resurfaced in the early 1800s, and like the legendary red violin was passed down through generations until it was smuggled out of pre-World War II Germany to England, where it hung in the home of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In 1951, William Scheide bought the portrait for his own home, and in Judith Scheide’s view, Sunday’s concert brought together all parties in this painting story to one place to celebrate the musical master himself. Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner presented an identical program to one performer earlier this year at London’s Buckingham Palace.

Mr. Gardiner is known for 18th-century performance practice, and his choice of Bach and Handel was right in the wheelhouse of the two performing ensembles involved. Bach’s double-chorus motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requires singers to perform as instruments, executive coloratura passages at top speed, simultaneously phrasing lyrical melodic lines high in the vocal register. With counterpoint that was so clear one could take dictation from it, the thirty members of the Monteverdi Choir presented Bach’s music with precision and transparency. Throughout the motet, Mr. Gardiner led the choir through smooth transitions among the movements, emphasizing key words in the text while maintaining an overall orchestral character. Accompanied by two celli, double bass, and keyboard continuo, the soprano parts of the two choirs were equal in suppleness, and a gentler tempo to the middle movement made the closing “Alleluia” all that more effective.

Bach’s Cantata #4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, may have seemed a dark work to pair with the joyful Singet dem Herrn, but under Mr. Gardiner’s leadership, the cantata became dramatic and full of emotion not seen in choral music until 50 years after Bach. Beginning with the opening Chorale, in which repeated phrases were sung with innovative dynamics, the eight movement cantata became at times a quiet conversation between singers and instrumentalists, rising in volume on such text as “er ist wieder erstanden” (“He has risen again”). The players of the English Baroque Soloists played every phrase with character, often reducing the sound to almost nothing, together with the chorus, at the “Alleluia” which closed each movement.

Rather than use individual vocal soloists for some of the movements, Mr. Gardiner used the full choral sections. Most impressive were the tenor and bass sections, which sang with completely unified sound among the six singers in each of the sections, with the violins playing passages that would rival any of Bach’s most intricate instrumental music. In the fifth movement’s mostly a cappella chorus, one could easily hear the struggle between Life and Death, as the closing “Alleluia” dissipated as if overseeing carnage on a battlefield.

The music of G.F. Handel was innately more vocal than that of Bach, due to Handel’s extensive work in opera. However, as Mr. Gardiner pointed out in his comments, Handel could also require great virtuosity of string players, and the 1707 Dixit Dominus was a true concerto for voices in its time. With the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner took a symphonic approach to the piece from the outset, with a first movement full of operatic nuance and dynamic variety. The top soprano choral sound had a fierce edge that could well have taken paint off the wall with its intensity, and such phrases as “conquasabit capita” were sung with such brutality one could hear the smiting of the enemy.

The performance included five vocal soloists, all of whom sang with the clarity for which British choirs are known. Sopranos Katy Hill and Emilia Morton sang with refined color, with Ms. Hill never seeming to run out of air in her triplet-filled aria. Soprano Esther Brazil sang the mezzo-soprano solos expressively, and with Ms. Morton, sang a duet full of sharp intensity. Tenors Guy Cutting and Peter Harris, along with bass Alexander Ashworth rounded out a vocal quintet which had both solo and choral lines well in hand. The dramatic close to the work brought the audience to its feet, showing the great appreciation for choral music which exists in the Princeton area, and in particular for this small sampling of the rich palette the British choral tradition has to offer.

 

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