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01 Nov 2018

Himmelsmusik: L'Arpeggiata bring north and south together at Wigmore Hall

Johann Theile, Crato Bütner, Franz Tunder, Christian Ritter, Giovanni Felice Sances … such names do not loom large in the annals of musical historiography. But, these and other little-known seventeenth-century composers took their place alongside Bach and Biber, Schütz and Monteverdi during L’Arpeggiata’s most recent exploration of musical cross-influences and connections.

L’Arpeggiata (director, Christina Pluhar), Wigmore Hall, 31st October 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Céline Scheen

 

Past performances at Wigmore Hall by L’Arpeggiata ( Mediterraneo with soprano Raquel Andueza, male soprano Vincenzo Capezzuto and dancer Anna Dego; La dama d’Aragó with soprano Núria Rial) have brought the spirit of folk music and the sultriness of jazz together with the formal sophistication of the Baroque, evoking the romance of the Mediterranean and the mystery of Catalonia, the infectious liveliness of dance and song setting the toes of the Wigmore Hall audience tapping. This concert, in which director/theorbist Christina Pluhar and her musicians were joined by Belgian soprano Céline Scheen, was a more sober, cerebral and spiritual affair, focusing on connections between the German and Italian traditions. Entitled Himmelsmusik (Heavenly music), the programme sought to illustrate the interplay between north and south during the Baroque, during a time when German traditions of counterpoint and chorale were both sustained and developed, as well as integrated with Italian innovations such as poly-choral antiphony and solo song.

One of the great joys of this concert was that we were introduced to several masters of the north-German Baroque, many of whom were prolific but whose music is infrequently heard. Johann Theile (1646-1724) was a student of Heinrich Schütz in Saxony and was esteemed among contrapuntists such as Dietrich Buxtehude. Theile was also one of the founding fathers of German opera, his 1678 Adam und Eva being the opening production at the Theater auf dem Gänsemarkt in Hamburg - the first German opera house. ‘Nun, ich singe, Gott, ich knie’ (Now I sing, God, I kneel), however, is far from theatrical: the voice, representing the Daughter of Zion (the work is titled Der Sionitin Wiegenlied) sings a humble lullaby - though the powerful vitality of the rich, dense organ (played by Haru Kitamika) in the instrumental opening served as a reminder of the significant role played by the organ, and organists, in municipal life.

Céline Scheen’s exquisite phrasing and carefully placed nuance perfectly captured the text’s spirit of tenderness and love, though elsewhere the purity of Scheen’s sound sometimes served the text less satisfactorily. Crato Bütner (1616-79, sometimes known as Büthner, Bytner or Buthnerus) was organist and Kapellmeister at the churches of first St Saviour and then St Catherine in Danzig. ‘Ich suchte des Nachts’, a setting of text from the Song of Solomon text, is a more sensuous expression of religious devotion than Thiele’s, the erotic inferences of lines such as the opening statement, ‘By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth’, being conveyed by the vibrancy of the violins’ interplay (Simone Slattery, Catherine Aglibut). Scheen once again displayed a crystalline tone, and considerable vocal agility, but I’d have liked greater variety of colour to complement and bring to the fore the textual inflections.

Christian Ritter (c.1645-1717), an organist and composer based in Dresden, drew more directly on Italian sources in his Latin motet, ‘O amantissime sponse’ (O most loving spouse) which was an adaptation of a motet for two sopranos, two violins and continuo by Vicenzo Albrici. Here, the ensemble imbued the fairly short melodic lines and motifs which an impassioned energy which was further vivified by Ritter’s harmonic adventurousness.

Franz Tunder (1614-67) represents the preceding generation: he studied in Rome under Frescobaldi before returning home to take up the position of organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he would be succeeded by Dietrich Buxtehude, the latter going on to develop the Abendsmusik concerts given on Sunday evenings which Tunder had established - and for which ‘Ein kleines Kindlein’ may well have been composed. The sincerity and cleanness of Scheen’s vocal line communicated the depth of Tunder’s expression, her soprano borne aloft on bright instrumental colours, energised ensemble conversations, and a lightly tripping triple-time rhythm. There was similarly engaging instrumental playing ‘Ninna nanna al Bambin Giesù’ (Lullaby for Baby Jesus) by an unknown composer, where Pluhar created a strong sense of forward movement, driving on the winding inner lines.

We were on more familiar ground with two compositions by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). ‘Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott’, a solemn work for soprano, instrumental consort and continuo, probably dates from c.1613, after the composer’s visit to Venice. L’Arpeggiata captured the grand solemnity of this work: there is flamboyance in the instrumental gestures which suggest an Italianate influence, and some elaborate organ rhetoric, but the overall mood - significantly enhanced by the serene focus of the vocal line - was one of contrition. Scheen made a similarly strong contribution in ‘Von Gott will ich nicht lassen’ (I will not abandon God), which followed segue. This ‘sacred concerto’ comes from Schütz’s later collection, Symphonium sacrarum and is written ‘in our German mother tongue’, and again I found Scheen’s diction wanting occasionally, and the organ a little too present. But, at the close Scheen’s soprano took off in glorious full flight, “Ihm sei Lob, Her’ und Pres. Amen” (Praise, honour and glory to Him), confirming the appropriateness of the memorial which the mason engraved into the composer’s tomb: ‘musicus excellentissimus’.

Between the vocal items, instrumental a Chiaccona by Maurizio Cazzati (1616-78) and an anonymous Chiaconna à 4 offered an ensemble sound by turns glossy, bright, urbane and sombre, with striking use made of dynamic contrast and plentiful evidence offered of the players’ facility and judicious flamboyance. A contrast was provided by the mellifluous polyphonic linearity of the Sonata à 6 in E minor by the Verona-born Antonio Bertati (1605-69) who worked at the Imperial Court in Vienna as an instrumentalist, before becoming Kapellmeister in 1649. Like Bertati, Giovanni Kapsberger (c.1580-1651) was a native Italian: born in Venice he was an inhabitant of Rome as a young man. His Toccata L’Arpeggiata was performed with a vivid, improvisatory zest. And, there were ‘canonic’ items too: the first of Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas and the Prelude of J.S. Bach’s Second Cello Suite in which Josetxu Obregón balanced elegance with expressive rhetoric.

It was the Italians who had last word; and, showed how they led the field in blending secular song idioms with sacred texts and contexts. Native Roman Giovanni Felice Sances (c.1600-79) travelled to Vienna to take up employment at the court chapel of Emperor Ferdinand II in 1636, but his Stabat Mater exudes the idiomatic gestures of the Italian lament, and Scheen’s expressive elaborations over the descending ostinato bass were beguiling. Monteverdi’s ‘Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius’ (Praise the Lord in his sanctuary) ensured that, despite the gravity of much of the evening’s musical expression of devotion, it was with joyful verve that proceedings closed.

Pluhar heralds from Graz, the second largest city in Austria, and studied at her home town’s historic university. So, in some senses, this programme took her back to her roots, but the inventiveness and imagination of its delivery confirmed that she, and L’Arpeggiata, never cease pushing the boundaries of the Baroque.

L’Arpeggiata’s new disc, Himmelsmusik , was released this month on the Warner Classics Label.

Claire Seymour

L’Arpeggiata: Himmelsmusik

Christina Pluhar (director, theorbo), Céline Scheen (soprano)

Johann Theile - Der Sionitin Wiegenlied: ‘Nun, ich singe, Gott, ich knie’; Maurizio Cazzati - Chiaccona; Heinrich Schütz - ‘Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott’ SWV447, ‘Von Gott will ich nicht lassen’ SWV366; J.S Bach - Prelude from Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV1008; Crato Bütner - ‘Ich suchte des Nachts in meinem Bette’; Anon - Chiaccona à 4 in C; Christian Ritter - ‘O amantissime sponse’; Antonio Bertali - Sonata à 6 in E minor; Franz Tunder - ‘Ein kleines Kindelein’; Heinrich Biber - ‘Mystery Sonata’ No.1 in D minor (‘Die Verkündigung’/The Annunciation); Anon - ‘Ninna nanna al Bambin Giesù’; Giovanni Kapsberger - Toccata L'Arpeggiata; Giovanni Felice Sances - Stabat mater; Claudio Monteverdi - ‘Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 31st October 2018.

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