Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The power of context

When the parishioners of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig went to the Vespers Service on Christmas Day 1723, commentaries on the Christmas stories were enhanced with a complete multi-media display, which I imagine was especially helpful for the many attending that day who could not read. The stories were reinforced visually by the paintings and sculptures throughout the church, while the new Cantor JS Bach provided music for choir and organ to go with traditional and modern music from Germany and Italy. The audience themselves were involved in the event, since they had a chance to sing the familiar Vom Himmel Hoch and Puer natus in Bethlehem as congregational chorales. They even had a chance to imagine themselves dancing, as Bach sets an invitation to the Reihen, a round-dance:
Call and cry to heaven,
come, Christians, to the round-dance,
you should rejoice over that which God has done today!
Story-telling is also important today, for educational and recreational reasons alike. Increasingly Historically-Informed Performance of 18th century music tells the story of a particular event that uses a particular historical context to bring alive old music and make it more relevant to modern audiences. John Butt and his Dunedin Consort recently did this with their reconstruction of the first performance of Mozart’s Requiem on January 2, 1793, one of the best CDs of 2014. Now they’ve put together a program of what might reasonably have been experienced in that beautiful East German church nearly three hundred years ago.

Attention is paid to the slightest details. John Butt himself plays the organ, which plays an important role in the service. The instrumental and choral forces are based on the latest research in the performance practice of the time, and following this research an especially low pitch (A=392) is used. As Butt states in his complete notes, this provides “an opportunity to explore the rich sonorities that the heavier string gauges and the slightly larger woodwind instruments afford.” Most importantly, though, the singing and playing shows both individual excellence and great musicality in the whole.

Nikolaikirche Leipzig, photo by Berthold Werner, from Wikipedia
Adding to the authentic feeling of the project is the site of the recording: Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. Though much of the current church has been rebuilt since the original building opened on Christmas Day 1620, it’s nearly as ancient as the Nikolaikirche, which like its Scottish counterpart was significantly renovated in the 18th century. In any case the spacious acoustic of a large church is well-suited to this music, and the expert instrumentalists and especially the singers take full advantage of its long reverberation. The whole project is fascinating: I was engaged by the concept and moved by the beautiful and inspiring music.

Greyfriars Kirk, photo by Carlos Delgado, from Wikimedia Commons

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