at Sanders last Wednesday
WITH singular integrity the Cambridge Society for Early Music last Wednesday evening avoided the institutionalized classics of antiquity, particularly those Interesting Historical Figures Palestrina, Monteverdi and Gabrieli, to present two pivotal and masterful liturgical compositions. These were the Musikalische Exequien (1636) of Heinrich Schutz, and the Vesperae de Dominica (1779) of Mozart. The first work was instrumental in transferring musical hegemony from Italy to Germany, while the Mozart work illustrates that composer's bursting maturity, a maturity which would soon reach its highest achievement in his church music with the great unfinished Mass in C minor.
Schutz, who was born into the world of Shakespeare and Cervantes and died in the world of Corneille and Racine, was the greatest German composer before Bach. His surpassing importance as one of music's choral masters is exceeded only by his inexplicable anonymity. He absorbed the colossal Baroque style of Giovanni Gabrieli as well as the audacious innovations of Monteverdi, both Schutz's contemporaries and teachers, to forge a colorfully formal, intensely spiritual, quietly progressive style. In its unorthodox form, the Exequien looks forward to the cantatas of Bach and the oratorios of Handel. The work is characterized by an evangelical passion which perhaps only Bach and Verdi, in his singularly tumultuous idiom, were able to equal; and also by a supreme melodic beauty which is the result of consummate vocal understanding. It is maddening to hear Schutz only once every several years, while legions of Preservation Groups disgorge the complete Corelli and Telemann, as well as more ghastly antiquarians, with implacable remorselessness.
The Cambridge Society did not succumb to this hazard. Its chorus was, above all, conscious of the spirit of liturgical dramatic works, so that while the performance was not a surpassingly beautiful one, it was exceptionally tasteful and engaging. And this was not so much the result of doggedly exhuming every ornament as of pentrating to the irreducible dramatic intention of each composition. The performers were most successful in the movingSong of Simeon, in which a baroque solo choir in the balcony sings a text different from that of the main choir, symbolizing in Schutz's words "the joy of the blessed souls in heaven." TheGloria, a quodlibet of Lutheran chorale melodies was precisely thought out and excellently proportioned among the voices. As for the seven soloists, the men were more distinguished than the women in regard to vocal blend if not phrasing, with Daniel Collins, the countertenor, David Evitts, the baritone, and Mark Pearson, the bass-baritone, producing the finest singing. The mezzosoprano and soprano, Jan Curtis and Susan Stevens, sounded totally alien, much as if one were simultaneously listening to a barrel-organ and a celeste. The choir was improperly overbalanced by the women, except in the Gloria, who smiled eloquently but sang somewhat carelessly. The contrabass continuo was consistently too loud and intermittently coarse.
Mozart's Vesperae was much more exciting and slightly less well-done. The major problem was the grim Carl Orff assault which soprano Donna Newman made on the sacred coloratura aria Laudate Dominum: all the notes were there, too many of them flat, all of them invested with a Donizettian apocalyptic bravura, Mozart may have been only one year away from great operatic achievement in Idomeneo, but at the moment he was still close by the altar. Miss Curtis seemed intimidated by this Salome-like display but still bettered her prosaic performance in the Schutz. The two male soloists sang adequately, Robert Gartside's illustrative facial antics notwithstanding. I wished for vastly superior pronunciation from everyone concerned. The highlight of the Mozart was the translucent Laudate Pueri in which the choral balances were exact in well-intoned and excellently phrased singing. The chamber orchestra played quite vigorously even if the conductor, Iva Dee Hiatt, displaying no left-hand technique, threw them to their own devices with her embarrassing Signal Corps gestures.
Despite these blemishes, the Cambridge Society's enjoyable concert certainly exceeded the usual summer Niagras of antiquarian Festivals in which the major orchestras repent eight months of Bruckner and Rimsky Korsakov and throw themselves at the starved mercy of their subscribers. Intelligent programming, significant musical abilities and commendable vitality combine to make this a welcome organization.