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Reviews

Roderick Williams
29 Nov 2015

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During this exploration of music from the Austro-German Baroque, Florilegium were joined by the baritone Roderick Williams in a programme of music which placed the music and career of J.S. Bach in the context of three older contemporaries: Franz Tunder (1614-67), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1701) and Heinrich Biber (1644-1704).

Florilegium at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Roderick Williams

 

The work of these three composers may be less familiar to listeners, but Florilegium revealed the musical sophistication — under the increasing influence of the Italian style — and emotional range of this music which was composed during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Franz Tunder was born in Lübeck, a town whose most well-known musical inhabitant is probably Tunder’s son-in-law, Dietrich Buxtehude. Buxtehude succeeded Tunder as organist of St. Mary’s Church where he developed the renowned free concerts, ‘Abendmusiken’, which his father-in-law had founded and which continued for several hundred years. Few compositions by Franz Tunder have survived: just fourteen works for organ and seventeen vocal works, plus an instrumental sinfonia to a motet. It is thought that the vocal compositions were not intended for performance in church — as such works had no place in the liturgy followed at Lübeck — and were instead composed for the evening concerts at St. Mary’s. They are evenly divided between works with German texts and those that set Latin devotional texts, and it was two of the latter that we heard here.

The motets ‘Da mihi, Domine’ (Give me wisdom, Lord) and ‘O Jesu dulcissime’ (O sweet Jesus) might in fact be termed ‘sacred concertos’, formed as they are of short movements for voice and obbligato instruments. The text of ‘Da mihi Domine’ consists of two responds for matins, the first recalling verses from Chapter 9 of the Book of Wisdom, and the second ‘Ne derelinquas me’ (Do not forsake me) bearing similarities to verses 1 and 3 of Ecclesiasticus Chapter 23. There was a gentle intimacy about this performance by Roderick Williams and six members of Florilegium (Catherine Martin and Jean Paterson [violin], Ylvali Zilliacus [viola], Reiko Ichise [viola da gamba], Jennifer Morsches [cello] and Terence Charlston [chamber organ]), but also a convincing progression through the short movements and increasing sense of urgency and triumph.

There is an Italian influence evident in Tunder’s work: the late German composer, singer and music theorist, Johann Mattheson, reported in 1740 that Tunder had studied with Frescobaldi when he was in Florence from 1627 to 1630. In the opening Sinfonia the instrumental lines entwined like voices in a Monteverdi madrigal. Though marked ‘Adagio’, the movement had a flowing two- then three-beats-per-bar impetus which made Tunder’s unusual use of rests effective, the silences never staying the momentum of the phrases. The first vocal passage, with organ accompaniment, lay quite low for Williams but the tone was full and focused, and as the phrases rose and become more florid the baritone imbued the melismatic appeals to the Lord, and the large vocal leaps, with grandeur and nobility. Imitative rhythms between the voice and organ bass line created propulsion, and this section led fluently into the more dance-like triple time section which follows. After the commanding pronouncement of the imperative ‘Mitte, mitte’, Williams displayed impressive control in the movement’s long vocal lines, the rising scalic motifs transferring seamlessly between the strings and voice. Similarly, there was rhetorical power during the section which sets the second text, as Williams repeated his calls to the ‘father and ruler of my life’, ‘domine pater’; and vitality was injected by the dotted rhythms of the alternating interpolations of the strings and voice, an interplay which became increasingly complex — and saw the return of the expressive rests of the opening — in the concluding sections of the motet.

‘O Jesu dulcissime’ is scored for bass voice, two violins, and continuo — the latter provided here by organ and viola da gamba. In the brisk Sinfonia, the close thirds of the violins were plangent and swelled expressively; after Williams’ solo entry his vocal line was embraced by the string lines and subsumed into the continuity of the ongoing step-wise phrases. While there were moments when the violins almost over-powered the vocal line, with the phrase ‘Quod per sacramentum tuum’ (What is your secret), the melody became more decorative, allowing Williams’ baritone to bloom, exhibiting precision and evenness during the melismatic runs. After the ‘mystery’ of the earlier sections, the fluid passagework created a spirit of ecstatic joy which flourished in the buoyant ‘Amen’ which concludes the work.

Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber spent most of his life in Salzburg where he was recognized as one of the finest violinists of his generation; as a composer, he is best known for his series of dazzling, virtuosic violin sonatas, titled the ‘Mystery’ or ‘Rosary’ sonatas. But, Biber also wrote ‘programme’ music, including the ‘Night Watchman’ Serenade for five instruments and bass voice, so-called because its fifth movement, Ciacona (which follows four instrumental movements, Serenada, Adagio, Allamanda and Aria). In this Ciacona, a ‘Night Watchman’ enters, to the pizzicato accompaniment of the upper strings whose players mimic lutenists by placing their instruments under their arms. As the watchman creeps through the streets he recites his nocturnal cry: ‘Lost ihr Herr’n und last euch sag’n’ (Listen folk and mark the hour,/ The bell strikes nine (ten) within the tower,/ All’s safe and all’s well,/ And praise to God the Father and to Our Lady).

There was some vigorous rhythmic articulation and exaggerated dynamic contrasts in the opening Serenada, while the Adagio was richer and warmer in tone; the cadences of the Allamanda were attractively decorated by organist Terence Charlston, whose chromatic bass line was relaxed and created an easy flow. Williams entered the platform from the stage-right rear door, effected a slow circumambulation of the stage, before exiting left; the textual enunciation of this night-time messenger was aptly crisp and the tone clarion. Strong accents restored rhythmic vitality during the Gavotte, and were complemented by fast bow strokes and rapid trills in the Retirada.

The vocal items were interspersed with instrumental works. The concert opened with Buxtehude’s Sonata in C BuxWV266 (for 2 violins, viola da gamba and organ) in which the somewhat reedy timbre of the Adagio was supersede by a brightness and lucidity in the Allegro. Leader Catherine Martin was unflustered by the bravura passagework of the Adagio and the ceaseless triplets of the Presto, and the ensemble made expressive use of the passages in the minor tonalities, shifts of tempo and changes of texture culminating in the solid harmonic progressions of the final Lento. Flautist and Florilegium director Ashley Solomon joined the instrumentalists to perform J.S. Bach’s Trio Sonata in G Minor BWV 1038 and Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concert in D TWV51: D2, his wooden flute adding a warm glow to the ensemble’s colour, as Charlston’s harpsichord gave freshness and light. The withdrawn pathos and veiled melancholy of the Adagio of Bach’s Sonata was particularly touching, and the phrases and cadences were beautifully tapered.

If these works demonstrated the increasing sophistication of the Austro-German Baroque style, and also the link between the early Baroque style and the later Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach, the concluding performance of Bach’s solo cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ left no doubt that Bach’s works were the crowning pinnacle.

From the start Williams, performing from memory, established a devotional mood, one of stillness, intimacy and consolation, spinning wonderfully long lines with superb breath control as he sang of contempt for worldly life and a yearning for death and the life beyond. In the first Aria, Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe sang assuredly and lyrically; the string lines were smoothly articulated, carrying the oboe on its ornamented journey. And while the instrumental dissonances were never exaggerated, the chromaticisms and decorations spoke of the pain suffered in the world, while Williams’ vocal line conveyed noble forbearance, as he used the consonant ‘h’ expressively in the eponymous utterance, ‘Ich habe genug’, (It is enough) to complement the violins’ melodic mordant. The tempo was relaxed but controlled; indeed, the whole cantata possessed an intensity which was never mannered but suggested fervent introspection. The Recitativo was muscular but relaxed, the penultimate textual line, ‘Mit Freuden sagt ich’ (With joy I say to you), powerful and direct, particularly after the gentle yearning of the first Aria. Williams ‘crept’ into the subsequent Aria, ‘Schlummert ein. Ihr matten Augen’ (Close in sleep, you weary eyes), and the lyricism of the vocal line in this section was greatly affecting; a more forthright tone, however, was appropriate for the assertion, ‘Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier’ (World, I shall dwell no longer here) — such sensitivity to the text and its meaning was impressive throughout. The flowing semiquavers of the final Vivace Aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’ (I look forward to my death), were a graceful stream, elegant and clear — and, paradoxically, life-affirming.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Florilegium: Ashley Solomon, director. Roderick Williams, baritone

Buxtehude: Sonata in C BuxWV266; Tunder: ‘Da mihi Domine’; Biber Serenada a 5 “Der Nachtwächter”; Tunder:’ O Jesu dulcissime’; J.S. Bach: Trio Sonata in G major BWV1038; Teleman: Concerto in D for flute, violin and strings TWV51:D2; J.S. Bach: ‘Ich habe genug’ BWV82. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday, 25th November 2015.

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