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Italianate Journey

August 5, 2008

In the past few years, down at the Carmel Bach Festival, they've made a little addition to the logo. Beside the big "Bach" with its ornate B, the words "and Beyond" extend upward in tiny print — not in the aggressive diagonal of a Soviet propaganda poster, but in the sort of lazy curve a Thomas Kinkade country lane might take. We're bold! but we're friendly!
In contrast to the comprehensive, didactic, yet Botoxed-smooth perfection with which arriviste [email protected] presents its summer regimen, Carmel touts the cultural and spiritual balm of its musical offerings with the easy charm of old money. Unsuspecting visitors might even be lured into thinking the place free of threatening rigor or erudition.

They would be wrong, even in that most traditional of Carmel Bach Festival events, the Wednesday night program held at the Mission Basilica. Sure, the procession of banners and candle-bearers in robes is still there, but this was followed up by an exceptionally rich and intense sequence of choral works, well performed by the Festival Chorale and instrumentalists under the direction of Associate Conductor Andrew Megill.

This year, the "Beyond" of the Bach Festival wends its way "forward" to Brahms, whose German Requiem received a moving performance on Sunday afternoon. Yet, this journey could not be made without also reaching back beyond Bach in the other direction — to Heinrich Schütz, the 17th-century master whose influence on both future composers was profound. A student of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, Schütz harnessed the expressive potential of the new Italian style to the needs of the German language and the Lutheran liturgy. He was a master of rhetoric, and could imbue even the simplest of musical textures — a held note, a chromatic pattern, a sudden leap or descent — with layers of meaning complementary to his text.

At the core of Megill's program was Schütz' Musikalisches Exequien of 1636. Composed to order for his princely employer, to a series of carefully chosen biblical and chorale texts that the prince also had engraved on his coffin, it was the original "German Requiem." Combining elements of the motet and the Italianate "sacred concerto" with a structure resembling that of a Lutheran Mass, it is a work of singular formal ingenuity, on a par with Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.

To surround it, Megill sought to construct a program of appropriate formal rigor, opening and closing with motets of Bach — also works with strong funerary associations — and leavening the middle with two short works of Schütz, a work by his contemporary Samuel Scheidt, and one foray yet further "beyond" to a 20th-century exponent of the motet and chorale tradition, Hugo Distler (only in the context of this program could such works be considered "leavening").

Alas, the program must have proved too long, for by last Wednesday's performance the Scheidt (a polychoral Laudate dominum that would have featured the brass and string players more fully) had been cut. The brief second section of the Exequien, a double-chorus motet, was also omitted. Yet what remained was a dense 90 minutes of music with no intermission. Something of the program's original (ingenious) symmetry was also lost.
Fine Solo Work
Bach's vast, 20-minute motet on the chorale Jesu, meine Freude is itself a symmetrical construction — the same chorale at beginning and end, nearly identical second and next-to-last parts, and so on, with a Fugue at the center. Its treatment of the text is comprehensive, its emotional tone alternately bellicose, consoling, and hopeful. Its several solo sections allowed for fine contributions by individual members of the Festival Chorale. Attention to delivery of the German texts — so crucial when, in the total darkness of the Basilica, we listeners could not read them — was excellent here and throughout the evening. The way the word "nichts" was lovingly enunciated, as if it were a three-syllable word, was one example.

This night, Jesu, meine Freude was followed directly by the Exequien, a sequence that favors neither work. The similar alternation of texture in the two pieces, between sections for a small group and for the chorus as a whole (not to mention the pervasive E-minor tonality), blunted some of the critical differences between the works that a bit of temporal distance might have highlighted. The concentrated rhetoric of Schütz sounded unduly somber and austere right after the more-florid language of Bach. Yet, in the sections for full chorus especially, the performance did capture the former work's luminous quality. A particularly dancelike moment in Part 1, coming at a reference to God's forgiveness and the joys of heaven, was about as joyful as it could decently be.

The final section of the Exequien, a compositional tour de force in which two texts — one sung by the main chorus, and one by three "angelic" soloists halfway across the basilica — are interspersed to create a deeper composite, was particularly well done. I wondered whether the angels and their accompanying theorbo had recourse to technical assistance beyond the means of 17th-century Saxony. However they did it, the ensemble was excellent.

The two shorter Schütz works, originally planned to flank the larger, followed one after the other. First came Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? — a later work, brief yet incredibly powerful. Here again, distant choruses were used to superb dramatic effect, the voice of God seeming to come at Saul from every direction on his road to Damascus. Brahms conducted this work in 1864 (1864: five years before his German Requiem!) when he was director of the Wiener Singakademie. (This might have made an intriguing program note factoid, but for its having been found in a printed book and via neither Google nor Wikipedia.)

The much earlier Jauchzet dem Herren came next. Here Schütz' use of two choirs at opposite ends of the church (one here accompanied by brass, the other by strings) is firmly in the cori spezzati tradition of Gabrieli, and the work exudes a more Italianate exuberance. Why place it here and not before Saul?
Distilling Chromaticism
That question was answered by the Distler motet that followed. Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, the last of a set of nine works of Geistliche Chormusik composed in 1934-36, shares with Saul an obsession with its first word, here heard unremittingly as a two-note motif. Distler, a brilliant musician who had the misfortune to embrace a church music revival at perhaps the most politically inopportune time and place in history, composed in a chromatic yet tonal idiom akin to Hindemith's at the time, in which fields of greater and lesser harmonic tension resolve eventually into the warm repose of major triads.

The effect is anguished, disquieting, and well-suited to its text ("Surely he hath borne our griefs," familiar to Handelians). The benevolent chorale that closes the work evokes a spirit of consolation linking this piece to Bach, and Schütz, and the German Requiem of Brahms. Despite an occasional slight wooliness in pitch (perhaps a bit of fatigue?), the chorus sang it eloquently.

Bach's Singet dem Herren made a most satisfactory closer. Just as Schütz did a century before, Bach absorbed the latest Italian trends (even if only from printed music and not travel). For Bach this meant the Italian instrumental concerto, and this motet bristles with "instrumental" virtuosity. Yet Bach also availed himself here of the possibilities of a double chorus, to create antiphonal effects, and to make one composite text out of two interspersed verses. The chorus rose to the challenge with renewed energy, as if happy again to be on familiar ground; the final "Alleluia" brought forth the applause that had been respectfully withheld the entire evening (another Bach Festival tradition).

However far "Beyond" it may go, the Carmel Bach Festival always remembers where its home is. And a good thing too, because in Carmel, they don't "do" house numbers.

George Thomson (www.georgethomson.com) is a conductor, violinist and violist, Music Director of the Virtuoso Program, San Domenico School, and conductor of the Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra. He lives in Novato, not a stone's throw from regular SFCV contributor Michelle Dulak Thomson.