Although there are plenty of concerts of choral music (particularly on Saturdays), many don´t go above habitual repertoire. However, in recent weeks I heard two worthwhile concerts that renovated the ears of this veteran but always curious reviewer.
The Bach Academy at the Central Methodist Church fished outside this year´s pond, theoretically consecrated to "The two Bach" (Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel) and presented a programme called synthetically "Trento", but subtitled "The splendor of the mass and the motet in the XVIth Century". Last year I wrote about a very interesting concert of the Conjunto Musica Prohibita led by Pablo Banchi and I praised their dedication to precisely this admirable and important though neglected repertoire. I thank them again; to meet a Palestrina mass is a musical blessing not often encountered, especially if followed by motets of Lassus, Victoria, Byrd and again Palestrina.
Although the mass was the most valuable musical form of the Renaissance and the motet the most prolific, there´s a reason for their current neglect, and the structure of Musica Prohibita explains it: there are six lines of voices: countertenors, tenors I, II and III, baritones and basses. No women, so the habitual mixed choir doesn´t fit the bill; simply, the Church at that time didn´t admit women. You need a specialised choir nowadays; you can use contralto boys but not sopranos and the basses aren´t very deep: so the music occurs within a narrow range.
The music disconcerts people that are used to the Baroque for these Renaissance pieces have no leading voice: the six lines intercross constantly varying initial cells with enormous ingeniousness. They are very difficult to sing and to appreciate, for concentration in the hearing must be total, but when you grow accustomed to their way of composing you discover its richness and serene beauty.
The Mass "Illumina oculos meos" lasts no less than 32 dense minutes and is Palestrina at his purest; if at all, people know him for the Missa Papae Marcelli, taken by the Council of Trent as the sort of music the Counterreform needed, opposed to what they thought of as overornamented predecessors; I and many others disagree in the purely musical side and think that earlier masses are also marvelous, but the matter was much more religious than musical: they wanted clear and severe lines mirroring the new aim of cleansing the Church. A caveat: not all masses require six voices: some are for four or five. And a fact: the enormous CD catalogue R.E.R. hasn´t a recording of this Palestrina Mass.
A moot point: I personally prefer this music without supporting instruments, for they have no independent parts, and I like the pure sound of the voices; the players were good but for me unnecessary, and I could have done without the brief organ introduction. It´s worth adding that the chosen motets were for six voices and were quite beautiful; the ones by Lassus and Palestrina were for eight voices divided in two parts.
Even with these reservations, the concert was blissful: the voices go from good to fine (the countertenors), and the fluid conducting of Banchi obtained the essential continuity without boredom.
Although it wasn´t announced as a première, I have missed any earlier presentation in our city of the Händel Brockes-Passion, so I went to this presentation of the Händel Society at the Central Methodist Church with great expectations. In the aforementioned catalogue there is only one recording, in Hungaroton. This Passion, the second and last one one written by Händel, dates from 1716, and by then Händel was famous in London. However, that year he made a trip to Germany and wrote this Passion in Hanover. At 31 he was a past master of both the German and the Italian styles. The subtitle of this Passion may be translated thus: "The martyred and murdered Jesus, atoning for the sins of the World"; and the text was written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes; Telemann, Matthisson and Keiser wrote masses on the same text.
On the basis that the Hungaroton recording is in three CDs I assume that the work lasts about three hours, so the less than two-hour concert I heard almost surely had heavy cuts. However, only in a couple of spots I felt some discontinuity. I am of two minds about Sergio Siminovich, the long-time leader of the Händel Society: on the one hand, he has done yeoman work through the years, premièring lots of very important scores (mainly Händelian); on the other, his ensembles have often been untidy and poorly textured. But this time the results were a good deal better, and I enjoyed myself.
To be sure, the music is admirable: varied, dramatic, intense and to the point, it´s first-rate Baroque. As there were supertitles, the text (typically pietist) could be followed (Barthold Heinrich Brockes was the author). The 19-player ensemble had a historicist bent and some good soloists, the rather big choir (54 members) was enthusiastic though imbalanced (40 women, 14 men). Siminovich was in better behavior, more controlled than usual.
Soprano Silvana Victoria Guatelli bore the brunt of the arias (Mary, Daughter of Zion, Believing Soul) and did quite well. Countertenor Adriano D'Alchimio sang correctly his rather short interventions. Two welcome imports gave weight to the narrative side: British tenor Philip Salmon (Evangelist, tenor arias) and Dutch baritone Frank Hermans (Jesus, baritone aria) acquitted themselves very professionally.
For Buenos Aires Herald