Who can resist the hair-raising antiphony-polyphony of multiple choruses, brass choirs, and pealing pipe organs in full cry with the sounds of Gabrieli? Certainly not the record-buying public, who have kept the Glory of Gabrieli recording in print for over 50 years. Columbia Masterworks lined up the Gregg Smith Singers, the Edward Tarr Brass Ensemble, conductor Vittorio Negri, Texas Boys Choir, the Gabrieli Consort La Fenice, and organist E. Power Biggs at San Marco for a smashup hit.
We were certainly expecting some of that excitement from the Back Bay Chorale’s “Golden Age of Brass” Saturday night at Emmanuel Church, especially because of the presence of the Dark Horse Consort. But a single Gabrielli canzona (Canzon III á 6) served as conductor Scott Allen Jarrett’s admitted afterthought, just to give the brass a chance to strut.
The quietly colorful, secure, and engaging execution from the two cornettos, three trombones and one bass trombone struggled to fill the large dark house of the sanctuary with the refiner’s fire we had come to hear. In a recording with the gain turned up, the ensemble would have made ideal contributions to this repertoire. In this event, we had Gabrieli without Gabriel.
The small portative organ of perhaps two stops also made politely plangent tones under Justin Thomas Blackwell’s ever-adaptive fingers; reinforcing extra bass from double-bassist Nathan Varga helped. The combination proved unequal, however, to the screaming and shouting of the 10-stop Rieger Biggsey imported from Austria to San Marco for his immortal recordings.
The imposition of a 110-person chorus on these early small-bore and (in two cases) leatherbound instruments resulted in a misalliance which required the chorus to suffer from suppression most of the time in order not to cover players who should have been able to dominate them.
Arrayed across the entire chancel, the chorus sounded fresh, young, and on this night straight-toned. Through endless numbers of cadential ritards, contrapuntal overlappings and rare shoutouts, they showed themselves to be in the top ranks of Boston’s fine community choruses. Nevertheless, the nearly constant holding back, along with seemingly inadequate involvement in the meaning of the sacred texts, delivered a samy didacticism rather than theatricality.
As much as I liked the sweet-toned organ, the quick strong church bass, and the gorgeous Dark Horse troupe, I would have been happier with an electronic sampling organ and some powerful modern brass to lift the chorus to higher vocal and interpretative spheres. Rhythmic rigidity and stepped dynamics also really wore.
Perhaps some of the blame could be laid to ineffective word-painting from the composers; on the other hand, the chorus did not evince a strong enough understanding of the words they were singing to be able to differentiate between such successive stanzas as “All men must die” and “It was delightful.”
Still, by the final movement of the final piece, they seemed to have plenty of energy, and the restraints finally came off.
Jarrett had warmed us up with a well-enunciated, charming (aside from his condescending coaching of the audience, phoneme by phoneme, in the pronunciation of mu-si-kal-isch-e ex-e-quie-n) music history lesson pitched in exemplary fashion into the cavernous sanctuary without aid of booming PA. He planned to reeducate us on the century of music between Palestrina and Bach by means of some Schein, Schütz, (no Scheidt), and Monteverdi sacred works which would illustrate the Italian influence on German musicmaking in the century after Luther’s nailed theses.
In Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, a “Burial Service in the Form of a Concert,” tenor Stefan Reed cantorially projected the texts (the translations of which looked familiar to readers of the Book of Common Prayer) with perfectly focused bright tones and a preacher’s understanding. Responses from a professional vocal sextet, who could ornament texts almost like illuminated manuscripts, further elucidated his statements before the full chorus came in with congregational responses. Through the near-dozen such iterations, the instruments added interesting and authentic, if mild, textures.
Monteverdi’s groundbreaking Vespers of 1610, merely famous for being famous to general audiences, has been done many times hereabouts by early-music specialists. Jarrett excerpted the Deus in adjutorium and Dixit Dominis. The setting of the Mass and Psalm 110 encouraged drama: The Lord will… “make a footstool of your enemies” … “… he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.” In some moments the performers realized it, such as soprano MaryRuth Lown, who luminously intoned of Virgam virtutis tuæ… (The scepter of your strength the Lord will send out of Zion) and the general response, “Tecum principium… The people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power.” For the Gloria Patri and final Amen, the larger forces praised and glorified with a dignified rigor.
Some highlights: The double chorus got some fine support from Jarrett’s restoration of instrumental parts in Gabrieli’s Deo á 8. Schein’s Nun Danket alle Gott sounded madrigalian in mostly accurate rapid passages and contrasting chordal pauses. In Schütz’s Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead), the singers stretched out some of the event’s most effective long-lined polyphony.
At this time of plague anxiety, it relieved us to sit among a goodly crowd without hearing a single cough; against such cheer, the predominantly requiastic rather than enthusiastic affect posed something of a memento mori.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer