Friday 24 November 2017

Divine Consolations: Stile Antico in Schütz & Bach at Cadogan Hall

Stile Antico (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Stile Antico (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Schütz, Bach, Lassus, Handl, Hassler, Daser Knofel; Stile Antico; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 23 2017 Star rating: 3.5
Intimate accounts of two great monuments of German Baroque music in this intelligent programme

For its concert at Cadogan Hall on Thursday 23 November 2017 as part of Choral at Cadogan, the vocal ensemble Stile Antico brought a programme based on two monuments of the German Baroque vocal music, Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien (from 1636) and Johann Sebastian Bach's motet Jesu meine Freude (from the 1720s). Both works are in some sense funerary, Schütz's piece was written for the funeral of Henry II, Count of Reuss-Gera, whilst Bach's also seems to have been written for a similar occasion. To this pair of works the ensemble added a selection of Latin motets on similar themes, a choice which at first seems strange but which was informed by the knowledge that Bach's choir in Leipzig performed this Latin repertoire regularly. The members of the ensemble were supported by a continuo group of organ (Oliver John Ruthven), theorbo (Alex McCartney) and violone (Kate Aldridge).

The evening opened with a calm and unhurried account of Orlande de Lassus' motet Justorum animae. Perhaps a little but too self-consciously calm, but the music was beautifully shaped indeed .

Schütz's Musikalische Exequien followed; this is a large scale work, setting a selection of scriptural text chosen by the Count of Reuss-Gera before his demise. As such, it pre-figures Brahms' Deutches Requiem.
For the long first section, Schütz alternates passages for solo voices (here accompanied by violone and theorbo) with choral passages (accompanied by organ). The result was sober and grave, beautifully considered and finely phrased. The solo lines were shared out between the 12 singers from the group. Here we had fine individual consort voices stepping into the limelight, and not all of them brought the necessary element of bravura to their role. The singers performed gathered round the continuo group in an arc, which certainly facilitated communication and felt very intimate but rather led to a feeling of the music being too contained. Perhaps the  Musikalische Exequien is one of those works with which a group needs to have lived a long time, for a performance to develop the right intensity.

In the second section, where Schütz refers back to his training with Giovanni Gabrieli, the use of double choir with more bravura vocal writing gave the singers a chance to give a more demonstrative performance. The final section combined choir with soloists place on the balcony, an effect rather tricky to bring off without a conductor. But the result was again to evoke Schütz viewing his Italian training through the lens of his later graver Lutheran style.

After the interval there was a group of Latin motets starting with Jacob Handl's Ecce quomodo moritur which Bach's Leipzig forces performed every year during the Good Friday Passion service. This was a beautifully considered performance, whereas the four singers in Hans Leo Hassler's Ego sum resurrectio brought vigour and a great sense of individual personality to the piece. Ludwig Daser's Media vita had a sense of highly concentrated beauty, whilst Johann Knopfel's In e Domine speravi was strong with appealingly lively textures.

The concert concluded with Bach's astonishing motet Jesu, meine Freude. A large-scale 11 movement structure in which Bach alternates chorale and motet movements all over complex scaffolding which is rigorously organised and symmetrical. But the result hardly sounds contrived and the work is very immediate, as Bach welds his chorales and more bravura passages into a satisfying whole.

There are solo moments, so we had a lovely trio of female voices in the fourth movement, and the solo trio in the eighth movement brought a nice lilt to the music. In the ninth, with its combination of alto chorale with solo voices, the result was surprisingly intimate. The chorale movements were all beautifully phrased, and often quite strongly performed with the words, quite rightly, to the fore. In the more complex movements it was a sense of fleetness and fluidity which struck me. The more bravura passages were often performed quite lightly.  I have to confess that I wanted a bit more elan at times, a more demonstrative sense of the enjoyment the singers felt in the music. This was an intimate, rather communal performance, and there were occasional moments when the presence of a director might have clarified textures.

Both the Bach and the Schütz are challenging, large scale works to perform without a conductor and these felt rather like works in progress and the performances lacked the clarity, concentrated intensity and confident bravura which this group can bring to a work. What they were really capable of was demonstrated in their encore, a further Latin motet given a superbly intense and demonstrative performance.

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