More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
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@fionatalkington Hello! Any chance of a shout-out / RT for our Christmas concert in Cambridge, happening *today*?! Wonderful, festive choral music - all welcome. Thank you!! Tix here: https://t.co/N6yTFIfuoP pic.twitter.com/MCbiQaunNj— St John's Voices (@StJohnsVoices) November 28, 2017
* St John's Voices
* Newe Vialles
* Combined Conservatories Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble
* Kinga Ujszászi and Persephone Gibbs (violins)
* Anthony Gray and David Heinze (chamber-organ)
* Graham Walker (director)
Thanks to the good offices both of a @BBCRadio3 #LateJunction co-founder (with @SharpV50) for publicizing, and to director Graham Walker for the press-comps, a thoroughly good and well-programmed concert could be heard - a delighted review from #UCFF is on the way ! https://t.co/LECY8ZZlLN— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) November 29, 2017
The initial draw to hear this concert had been the so-called 'Rosary’ Sonatas* of Heinrich (Ignaz Franz von) Biber (of which the first three were to be played). However, it soon became clear that the whole programme in which they had been set was attractive and well proportioned, with one half pairing them very relevantly and sympathetically with Motets by Michael Praetorius, and the other – after a breather of an interval – led up to in Die Weihnachts-Historie of Heinrich Schütz.
First half :
1. Michael Praetorius (1751-1621) ~ Wachet Auf à 7
2. Praetorius ~ Ingressus Angelus
3. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) ~ Mystery Sonatas*, No. 1 - The Annunciation
4. Praetorius ~ Übers Gebirg Maria geht
5. Biber ~ Mystery Sonatas, No. 2 - The Visitation
6. Praetorius ~ Uns ist Ein Kindlein heut’ geborn
7. Biber ~ Mystery Sonatas, No. 3 - The Nativity
8. Praetorius ~ In Dulci Jubilo à 8
At the start of (1) the Motet Wachet Auf (1607), from [according to the ChoralWiki catalogue] Musae Sioniae, Part V, and set for choir in seven parts, Michael Prateorius has them enter in very quick order - with a text that we may know very well from Bach's Cantata, BWV 140 (and the Chorale Prelude, BWV 645). We were soon luxuriating, in the chapel at St John’s College, in the sound of around thirty voices plus, from their Ensemble, the now more familiar ‘Christmassy textures’ of sackbutts and cornetts (with chamber-organ continuo, variously provided by Anthony Gray and David Heinze).
Not for the last time in the evening, these forces were well blended with those of Linda Sayce (on theorbo, who elsewhere plays viol as part of Newe Vialles), the bowed strings of the remainder of those present from that group (Henrik Persson and Caroline Ritchie), and of violinists Kinga Ujszászi and Persephone Gibbs [from whom we would hear in the first half as soloists in, respectively, (3) the first, and (5) the second and (7) third, of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas*].
In its introductory role, this was a lively rendition, but perhaps just one slight thing was lacking : in the part of the Motet that starts with the words Wohlauf, der Bräut’gam kömmt (‘Indeed, the Bridegroom [i.e. Christ] comes’), did we miss more sense of apprehension of and excitement at this mystery ? Uninterrupted (as the whole first half was) by superfluous applause, it was followed by (2) the Motet Ingressus Angelus (1607), a short a capella setting in five parts, in which St John's Voices, under Graham Walker, creditably brought out the reflectiveness of a text on The Annunciation, ready for the first, so entitled, of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas :
Amongst (3) Biber's Mystery Sonatas, No. 1 (The Annunciation) begins with a strikingly sustained pedal-note from the organ, plus, initially, the violin (before the theorbo momentarily joins them). In this first Sonata*, the violinist is not directed to tune differently from normally (E-A-D-G, unlike the ones that were performed later, where scordatura is used – please see below), and Kinga Ujszászi played with graciousness and a perfect sweetness, as well as virtuosity. (One can therefore credit the programme-note, which says that Biber was 'regarded as one of the finest violinists of his time'.)
Despite the conventional tuning here, the combination of instruments, which included Caroline Ritchie on viol, at some moments still seems pregnant (even threatening ?) – as if enacting the moment of overshadowing, by the power of the Most High, that Luke 1 : 35 talks of ? [The verse when Mary has questioned what has been announced (i.e. giving birth not only to a son (Luke 1 : 31), but also to a most remarkable one (Luke 1 : 32-33)), because she is a virgin, and the angel (Gabriel) replies.] Though, from Linda Sayce (on theorbo), there then emerged a delicate joy that, as in a round, passed to the violin, before developing into what resembled a passacaglia - with the delicacy of the lead Instrument and of its accompanying voices. At the end, these clear sounds disappeared into nothing – as if Gabriel (or the Holy Spirit ?) just vanishes**.
The next work by Michael Praetorius, (4) Übers Gebirg Maria geht (1609) [from Musae Sioniae, Part VI], is the first of two in German (rather than Latin), and sets two paragraphs (with a four-line Chorus) that deal with Mary, visiting her relative Elizabeth** [The Visitation, treated of afterwards in (5) the second of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas]. Hence the title, which refers to Mary, having to cross the mountain into Judea (although even The King James’ Version of Luke 1 : 39 only refers to ‘the hill country’).
Certainly compared with the style of (1) Wachet Auf (1607), its four-part setting is very different, and lightly metrical, as Graham Walker and St John’s Voices showed, minutely dividing the title-line into half-lines, i.e. ‘Übers Gebirg’ and ‘Maria Geht’ (as we were also to find in (6) Uns ist Ein Kindlein heut’ geborn, from the same year (and collection)).
Having the background timbre of the sackbutts and cornetts here, in the closing couplet, was lovely, expressing a mood that was both festal, and displaying the solemnity of restraint. At the end of the second paragraph, Praetorius repeats the couplet, to underline the importance of this element of fearing God, but also of looking to God for mercy and as a saviour [from the text of the Magnificat, Luke 1 : 46-55] – before the sound falls away into the acoustic :
er ist mein Heiland, fürchtet ihn,
er will allzeit barmherzig sein
In (5) No. 2 from the Mystery Sonatas, there was a different approach to and in the violin part, which (as part, again, of a well-balanced ensemble) this time was played by Persephone Gibbs (as, also, in the third / final Sonata) : straightaway, she was sounding 'full on' in a way that Kinga Ujszáski had not done, and – as if to accentuate the effect of the scordatura tuning – somehow more rounded. (The strings that, from top down, are normally tuned E-A-D-G become E-A-E-A in this scordatura tuning, so the lower two strings are both tuned up, by a whole tone, for this Sonata - each, apart from Nos 1 and the Passacaglia at the end, has its own scordatura.)
Biber gave us another circulation of melodic / rhythmic material, but seeming not to rely, now, to the same extent on virtuoso violin-writing, but on sound-painting – so, a tone of quiet jubilation in phrases and responses between the violin and Henrik Persson’s lower-pitched (bass ?) viol, perhaps representing the dialogue between Mary and Elizabeth ? We also heard the quieter sounds of the organ and theorbo, and the material more gently inflected to suit its character. Almost gigue-like, a short and more lively final section (not a movement as we would know it*) concluded this wonderfully atmospheric work.
Praetorius' (6) hymn Uns ist ein Kindlein geborn was another excellent collaboration between St John's Voices and the other performers, with a glorious opening brass chorale. As we had heard (4) in the preceding setting (Übers Gebirg Maria geht), there is a light metricality, but the choir gave emphasis to Gott mit uns ('God with us' [the meaning of Emmanuel, one of the names given to Jesus]). It appears on its own in the second line, and then, for further effect, repeated as two accented half-lines in the fourth line, making a pattern, for the whole four stanzas, that concludes more lyrically with wer will sein wider uns ? ('Who would want to be against us ?').
As Ujszászi provided a prominent melody-line for the second stanza, Graham Walker brought out the light beat of the opening of the first line, i.e. Auch ist gegeben, and showed how it makes a half-line with uns ein Sohn (the sense runs on to read 'We have also received a Son [...] From the heavenly throne'), reminding us from where the Christ-child came to Earth – so that the remaining stanzas can be in glory and praise of the crucified and risen Jesus. Another chorale of cornetts and sackbutts for the next stanza illuminated All sein Herrschaft und Majestät ('All his dominion and majesty'), and, in the final stanza, we heard the choir at a triumphant full volume. After a momentary pause – to stress the closing pair of lines one final time – so finished this joyfully resounding performance :
Gott mit uns, Gott mit uns,
wer will sein wider uns ?
(7) The Nativity, No. 3 of the Mystery Sonatas, has a slow and thoughtful introduction, which also gently serves to get us used to the new scordatura timbres of the violin (now tuned quite differently****) against those of the other players. Then, after a faster section (where the violin is slightly jarring with Caroline Ritchie's viol), another with dance-like rhythms, but they are held back, and where the principal line is brought around to show a different aspect, before a return – but not exactly to where we started.
In another faster passage, gorgeous multi-stopped miniatures from Persephone Gibbs, with a content purely heavenly and divine, and with light accents. The Nativity does not quite drop away to nothing here, but ends with a telling closing reflection, which may be on the humanity and frailty - even unto death ? - of the Christ-child. As with all of the Mystery Sonatas that we heard, this was a fine performance ! It showed, in how it was executed, that performance of the piece had been conceived (or even choreographed) as a whole.
Again, to close the first half, there was a nice match between what could be heard of the voices and the other musicians with (8) the Motet In Dulci Jubilo à 8 (1607) [from Musae Sioniae, Part II]. With the gentle sounds of Linda Sayce (on theorbo), and the gorgeous tone-colours of the Combined Conservatories Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble, it was especially pleasing to hear this very familiar music by Praetorius at this point :
Not only in the context of his preceding works and with Advent approaching (starting on Sunday 3 December), but as he might have known it. (Rather than, say, in a modern choral arrangement at Christmas, e.g. that by Robert L. de Pearsall and familiar to us from Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College.)
Second half :
9. Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) ~ Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi, SWV 435
* The Rosary Sonatas are also called, as in the programme for this concert, Mystery Sonatas (as well, it appears, The Copper-Engraving Sonatas - since it appears that, in MS and taken from the Lives of Christ and of The Virgin Mary, each is introduced by an appropriate engraving). With titles from the devotional practice of the Rosary, they are from the first cycle of five Sonatas, depicting 'Joyful Mysteries' (the second set of five being 'Sorrowful Mysteries, and the third 'Glorious Mysteries', plus a closing Passacaglia).
For the work's time of composition, we should not expect Sonata to mean what it does later, i.e. a work for one or two instruments, and with a distinct musical form, divided into a three- or four-movement structure – the notion of a ‘movement’ as such, at this time, may even be wholly anachronistic.
** For Mary, one imagines that the experience must have been at least ‘troubling’ (Luke 1 : 29-30), as well as not, until confirmed, seeming utterly real : for her, part of that confirmation (Luke 1 : 36-37) is her kinswoman (or 'cousin' ?) Elizabeth becoming pregnant*** (the visit to see whom was the subject of the following piece by Praetorius, (4) Übers Gebirg Maria geht).
[For Mary's betrothed Joseph, as (in the second half) the libretto to Weihnachtshistorie by Heinrich Schütz makes clear, the first of several dreams (Matthew 1 : 18-21) fortunately offers him reassurance and guidance about Mary and Jesus - though this one occurs before the scope of what the work tells.]
*** There is a theology that says that there is an objective difference between the following reactions (respectively, by Zechariah (when Gabriel tells him that his wife Elizabeth will give birth (Luke 1 : 11–17) – to John the Baptist), and Mary (Luke 1 : 26–37)) :
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this ? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years [Luke 1 : 18]
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man ? [Luke 1 : 34]
The former apparently earns a briefer explanation (1 : 19) than Mary receives (if only of who it is whom Zechariah has not believed), but then a rebuke for not doing so and a form of punishment (1 : 20), whereas Mary both has her question answered (1 : 35), and is directed to the example of what has happened to her ‘cousin’ Elizabeth (1 : 36–37) (with no punishment). Yet they equally seem to advance factual reasons (age or virginity, respectively) that question how what they have been told can happen ?
**** The usual tuning of E-A-D-G is transformed into D-B-F#-B, which is the first of several uses of scordatura technique where all of the strings are tuned differently - the upper string is tuned down, by a whole tone, the next one up (by the same interval), and the remaining two also up (but both by two whole tones, i.e.a major third).
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)