Praetorius with the Balthasar Neumann Chor and Ensemble: a Transalpine Tour

22 August 2015BlogJon Stainsby

After Salzburg, I remained with the Balthasar Neumann Chor and made the short trip to Innsbruck, to rehearse and perform a programme of Magnificats and settings of texts from the Song of Songs by Michael, Hieronymus and Jacob Praetorius, with the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-CasadoThe BNC recorded this music last year for Deutsche Grammophon, but this is the first time the programme has been performed live. Pablo Heras-Casado has a very distinctive profile, as a conductor who, from the very beginning of his musical training, immersed himself in early music, but also progressed quite quickly to the classical and romantic symphonic and operatic repertoire. He now has a burgeoning international reputation in both of these fields, though it's unlikely that he would perceive any kind of clear distinction between them: even from brief experience with him this week, it's clear that there's a formidable coherence to his music-making.

Nevertheless, some people have been surprised at his enthusiasm for this particular, rather unfashionable corner of the repertoire. On the British classical scene, the early north German baroque – the music of the composers in the generations before Bach, including the three composers working under the name of Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, and Dietrich Buxtehude – goes almost unheard; indeed it's hard to think of another period of music history which is the subject of such undeserved neglect. Even in German-speaking countries, these are not familiar works, so it's a bold move for the BNC to devote an entire recording and touring project to them. It's testament to the ensemble's reputation, Pablo's box-office pulling power, and the enterprising work of the Innsbruck Festwoche Alte Musik that on Friday there was standing room only in the magnificent Stiftskirche for a concert of almost unknown music.

Stylistically, the music of Michael, Hieronymus and Jacob Praetorius is often reminiscent of the polychoral works of Renaissance Venice, and even of the more liberated madrigalian techniques of Monteverdi and his contemporaries; yet it's always rooted in a rigorous commitment to counterpoint. To put it another way, these composers are not afraid to write music which responds very immediately and sensually to their chosen texts (and some of these Song of Songs texts are very sensual indeed), but the overall musical experience is one of structural logic and integrity. It's a combination that makes these pieces immensely satisfying to sing. Once again, we were joined by the wonderful players of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, doubling the vocal lines on period instruments. It's actually quite peculiar to music of this historic period to sing in this configuration, with only one or two singers on each part, joined by a single instrument from the ensemble – a kind of halfway house between singing a capella, and singing larger-scale choral works with independent orchestral accompaniment. At first this can be quite unnerving: the combination of one instrument and one voice on the same line at the same pitch can feel like a rather unequal contest, and the singers can fall victim to the perennial fear that we won't be heard over the orchestra. But maybe this is to misunderstand the sound-world of this repertoire, and the distinctive pleasures that it offers. Singing teachers will often try to galvanize their students by drawing analogies between the voice and the techniques and sonorities of particular instruments; and it's a commonplace of musical training to ask instrumentalists to produce a more “singing” tone, or to imagine that their instrument has the qualities of a human voice. Singing the Praetorius programme this week has brought this aspiration a little closer to realisation. With one voice and one instrument on each line, it's never going to be quite clear who is accompanying whom; instead, it can start to feel as though the sounds of the voices and instruments are combining, and that the singers are simply overlaying their vocal sound and diction onto the soft-grained sound provided by the instruments. In effect, it comes to seem as though the singers are allowing the instruments to sing and articulate the text, while the instruments are allowing the singers to come as close as we ever will to experiencing what it would be like to be a cornetto or a viol.

The tour continues on the other side of the Alps (via a spectacular train journey through the Alberg pass) with a concert in Freiburg, and concludes at Cathédrale de Notre Dame in Strasbourg, in a free concert forming part of the millennial celebrations of the foundation of that great building. There's a brief, enlightening interview with Pablo Heras-Casado on the Presto Classical website, in which he alludes to his forthcoming plans to collaborate once again with the BNC for a recording of Monteverdi's Selva morale next year.

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