St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig brings a rich musical history to Celebrity Series concert

November 14, 2017 at 12:13 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The St. Thomas Choir of Lepizig performed Sunday at Jordan Hall

The St. Thomas Choir of Lepizig performed Sunday at Jordan Hall

For many classical music organizations, longevity is a source of pride. A number of American ensembles are well into their second century of activity; Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society has just begun its third. 

But when one considers how long the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig has been in existence, two centuries is but a drop in the bucket. Founded in 1212, the celebrated ensemble is almost half as old as Christianity itself. And 800 years of activity is ample time to attract high-profile directors, some of whom have become pillars in the world of classical music. Johann Hermann Schein served as director as well as J. S. Bach, who led the ensemble when he worked in Leipzig during the last twenty-seven years of his life.

Music by Schein and Bach served as the focal point of the St. Thomas Choir’s debut concert with the Celebrity Series Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Filled with singing of radiant lyricism, this concert rang in the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in grand fashion.

The Choir is 44 members strong and made up of boys aged 10 to 18. The singers’ vocal tone is pristine, and sopranos and altos soar freely over the sturdy support of tenors and basses. Rhythmic articulation is precise, and the singers perform with diction of spring-water clarity. The choir’s director, Gotthold Schwarz, sculpted phrases of soft elegance.

But the choir is capable of a plush blend, particularly in the thickly scored chorales and motets that dotted Sunday’s program. Phrases coursed fluently in Bach’s “Du heilige Brunst.” Schein’s “Herr Gott, du unser Zuflucht bist” beamed with resonance. 

Both composers wrote music that reflected the Italian sacred concerto tradition. Bach’s “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” pitted smaller groups of singers against the larger ensemble, and the voices blended in phrases of surging vitality. Nimble lines in Schein’s “Ich bin jung gewesen” created streams and eddies in the music’s flowing texture. 

But it is Heinrich Schütz who is most remembering for bringing the Venetian polychoral style to Germany. A few works heard Sunday afternoon reflected the grand style of his teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli. In “Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt,” pure-toned duets flowered into a quartet and, eventually, a sublime full ensemble. And the harmonies of “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt,” with their rich overtones, seemed to look ahead to romantic choral writing.

The choir did offer a few works by Mendelssohn. Of those, his “Mitten wir im Leben sind” suffered from a few untidy attacks. But the singers built the work’s fuller sections into towering pillars of sound, particularly in the strains of “Kyrie eleison.” 

The solo singers were superb. Soprano Elias Unger sang with silvery voice in Bach’s “Gott lebet noch,” and Nathanael Vorwergk delivered a graceful rendering of the composer’s “Dir, dir Jehova, will ich singen.”  Schütz’s “Eins bitte ich vom Herren” was a soulful duet sung by tenors Maximilian Mueller and Henrik Weimann. In support, cellist Hartmut Becker and organist Stefan Altner supplied soft and sturdy continuo.

Rapturous applause brought two encores, a bright and buoyant account of Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino” and, naturally, Bach’s “Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten.”

The next classical music event hosted by the Celebrity Series will feature the Canadian Brass in arrangements of music by Bach, Schumann, and Mozart 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org617-482-6661

 

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