The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The View from Vienna about 1800 - March 8, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
The idea behind this concert was to present the kind of choral music that one might have heard in Vienna around 1800, even though some of it had been written much earlier. Accordingly, the program began with a selection of three pieces by 15th century composer, Heinrich Isaac. For this, the 12 singers (6 men and 6 women) stood in mixed parts, and since they were singing a cappella, they were joined by the accompanist. Together, they produced a soothing ensemble sound so suited to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Especially notable was the beautiful, pure sound produced by the sopranos. I also observed the gentle undulation of the bodies that somehow added to the lulling quality of the music. The overall effect of those first three selections was simply transporting and soul-refreshing.
The Pachelbel represented a change in mood, quite different from one’s first thought of Pachelbel. It was an exuberant fugue, and for me, it seemed unusually easy to follow the individual vocal lines. It made me think that a small ensemble may have an advantage over a very large one in performing this kind of music in this kind of resonant space. When there are dozens of people on a single vocal part, there are bound to be slight variances in attack, in tone, in vowel, and perhaps even in pitch. Ideally, minimizing these variances would lead to a purer sound when produced by a smaller ensemble – at least that’s my theory for why the intricacies and artistry of this piece came through so clearly.
The Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn) motets continued the variety of styles presented in this concert. With them, the chorus produced lush harmonies, with an exquisite swelling and ebbing of voices in each musical phrase. The sensitivity of the performance was actually disarming, and could almost bring one to tears, especially considering the text which dealt (in Latin) with the crucifixion of Jesus.
The next selection was a cantata by Mozart, and Sara Haugland’s full, rich soprano voice made it a delight. Supported by the brilliant playing of Faythe Vollrath, Haugland’s performance was unlabored and unpretentious, accentuated by an excellent articulation of the German text.
In his pre-concert talk, Johnson had explained that Diabelli’s exultant Te Deum was designed to be sung outdoors and with a full orchestra. Indeed, he seemed a bit apologetic for the fact that the piece had to performed with a piano reduction. Not necessary. To my ear, this celebratory music was stirring as presented, with the chorus demonstrating great dynamic range – from the softest pianissimo to the strongest fortissimo. And the incidental solos were delivered so well that I began to see this as a chorus of soloists.
The clues to contemporary culture continued in the final six pieces by Franz Joseph Haydn. As Johnson explained in his pre-concert talk, they reveal “Haydn’s thinking about domestic life.” The first of these was a revelry, and one could tell that without consulting the translation of the German: the smiles and enthusiasm of the singers said it all. In the remaining pieces, I could feel delicacy, power, wild abandon, contemplation, heart – and humor. Throughout, the piano was so sensitively played, so transparent, that the thought struck me that it was not so much support for the singers as a member of their ensemble.
As Johnson explained in the pre-concert talk and the written comments in the program, these part songs by Haydn were the raison d’ętre of this concert. He had fond memories of having sung them, and wanted to share these “Six Part-Songs about Live, Love, and Drink” with his singers and with the audience. In particular he alerted us to the musical joke on which the concert would end. The last of the songs tells how water makes one dumb like a fish, while strong drink makes one eloquent. The joke came in the fact that the last word of the piece, which ends uncomfortably on a leading chord, is “stumm,” the German word for dumb, and that pronouncing it makes one look like a fish.
Although limited to music characteristic of a particular place and time, there was wide variety in this concert. For me, it was a musical smorgasbord, a satisfying classical feast.