Cinquecento and Jenny Högström Elevate the Early Music Festival’s First Week

12/08/2017

BachFest

2017 Vancouver Summer Bach Festival  [1]

Van

Cinquecento © Jan Gates

Tallis, Tye, Byrd: Cinquecento [Terry Wey (countertenor), Achim Schultz (tenor), Tore Tom Denys (tenor), Tim Scott Whitely (baritone), Ulfried Staber (bass)], Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 2.8.2017. (GN)

Tallis – ‘Salvator mundi I à 5’; ‘In ieiunio et fletu à 5’; ‘If ye love me à 4’; ‘Te lucis ante terminum I (alternatim) à 5’; ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah I’; ‘Honor, virtus et potestas (alternatim) à 5’; ‘O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit’; ‘Te lucis ante terminum II (alternatim) à 5’

TyeThe Mean Mass: Gloria à 5; Credo à 5; Sanctus à 5; Agnus Dei à 5
Byrd – ‘Ne irascaris Domine’

Handel et al: Jenny Högström (soprano), Terry Wey (countertenor), Alexander Weimann (harpsichord), Lucas Harris (lute), Beiliang Zhu (cello), Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 4.8.2017.

Handel – ‘Nel dolce tempo’ HWV135b; ‘La Lucretia’ HWV145; ‘Tanti Strali’ HWV197
Pasquini – Sonata VII in F major; Sonata IX in C minor
Steffani – ‘Begl’occhi, oh Dio, non più’
A. Scarlatti – Toccata and Fugue in A minor
Lanzetti – Cello sonata in C major Op.2 No.3

Moscheles, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn: Byron Schenkman (fortepiano), Michael Unterman (cello), Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 4.8.2017.

Moscheles – 3 Etudes in Melodic Counterpoint Op.137a
Fanny Mendelssohn – Fantasy for Piano and Cello in G minor
Felix Mendelssohn – Sonata No.2 for Piano and Cello in D major Op.58; Song without Words Op.109

As with last summer’s event, this year’s 15-concert Vancouver Early Music festival was presented as a Bach festival but actually entertained a much richer variety of composers and ‘historical performance’ genres, both instrumental and vocal. Following Matt Haimovitz’s opening foray into the Cello Suites, outstanding vocal concerts of the first week included an appearance by the outstanding Vienna-based ensemble Cinquecento, exploring the offerings of Thomas Tallis and Christopher Tye; followed by a concert of Italian cantatas featuring Cinquecento’s countertenor Terry Wey and inspiring young Swedish soprano Jenny Högström. Both concerts were magnetic experiences. Down another byway, the festival christened a newly-restored Broadwood fortepiano in early nineteenth-century repertoire, putting it into action in both lieder and cello recitals.

Having now released nine strongly-praised CD’s for Hyperion, one expected something special from the six-member vocal ensemble Cinquecento. While only five singers appeared in this Vancouver debut, few might have predicted just how rich, beautiful and sensual their sound actually is – like a full-bodied red wine. Their vocal blend is magnificent, their articulation and judgement estimable, and there is an immediacy and human spirit in it all. The top of their sound is remarkably free and the bottom is anchored in stone.

Pieces by Thomas Tallis dominated, and from the opening ‘Salvator mundi I à 5’ and ‘In ieiunio et fletu à 5’, one noted how full and seamless the group’s legato lines were and what a fine awareness of harmony and counterpoint they displayed. This was not only singing of commitment but of wonder too. Their ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah I’ was most successful in catching the gravity of the mourning, moving out with an engulfing dramatic intensity; on the other hand, life seemed to literally pulsate through ‘Honor, virtus et potestas (alternatim) à 5’.  (Perhaps I was made more fully aware of what Vaughan Williams was responding to when he wrote his Tallis Fantasia.)  ‘Te lucis ante terminum II (alternatim) à 5’ brought a stunning example of the ensemble’s clean articulation and vocal control, creating a wonderful sense of musical space at its opening. Their selections from Christopher Tye’s distinguished Mean Mass had similar virtues: the rich, detailed characterization, the sensual fragrance and the unerring ability to move out the music with both architectural strength and riveting internal synergy. The latter was especially apparent in the Credo.

The immediacy of these performances clearly illustrated the virtues of a ‘one voice per part’ approach: here was unique clarity and balance, contrasting with the relative reticence and diffusion that one often finds when larger choirs perform the same pieces. While some might prefer a more otherworldly ‘mist’ placed over the quieter parts of this music, Cinquecento was still magnificent at pianissimo – beautifully etched in feeling, lines suspended with gravity. I was certainly intrigued to find out the group’s secret formula, but perhaps there isn’t one. In a brief conversation with countertenor Terry Wey, the ensemble’s founder, he commented: ‘Cinquecento is just a group of singers who all want to be soloists… we’re really very down-to-earth in our approach’.

Wey joined soprano Jenny Högström and Alexander Weimann’s small consort for a concert of Italian cantatas (principally Handel) two evenings later, which offered another exalted experience. Högström has such a rich, firm vocal palate and can bring shape and musicality to whatever she sings. One never doubts her virtuoso command, but she hides it well and always puts it at the service of the music and text. Furthermore, she exudes both strong emotional involvement and a beguiling flow in mining a wealth of vocal variety. This served particularly well in Handel’s ‘La Lucretia’, which was an absolute delight throughout, finding countless different vocal postures and, often, a powerful emotional depth. Wey’s crisp, exact and lyrically-inspired characterization of the composer’s ‘Nel dolce tempo’ was equally redeeming as a companion piece. The two soloists charmed in their duets, showing a sensitive, cooperative ethic in both Steffani’s ‘Begl’occhi, oh Dio, non piu’ and Handel’s ‘Tanti Strali’, managing the echo effects in the latter to great effect. Alexander Weimann’s consort accompanied to perfection, adding a ‘courtly dance’ charm to the start of each half with a Pasquini sonata for harpsichord and lute (Weimann and Lucas Harris), while cellist Beiliang Zhu offered a fluid and engaging performance of a Lanzetti Cello Sonata. Weimann’s solo harpsichord contributed a fetching virtuoso reading of a Toccata and Fugue by Alessandro Scarlatti, a piece which surely must have inspired his son Domenico. There was a compelling balance to everything presented here.

An element of intrigue also came in the lunchtime concert on the same day, with a rare combination of cello works by Ignaz Moscheles, Fanny Mendelssohn and her illustrious brother, Felix. Of great interest was the debut of a Broadwood fortepiano c.1870 (lovingly restored with its original hammers by local builder Craig Tomlinson), which sounded beautifully smooth on top even if it might have had a touch more resonance at the bottom. Byron Schenkman played the instrument with great assurance, while Michael Unterman, familiar from the Boston Early Music Festival and the Portland Baroque Orchestra, was the cellist.

The three Moscheles Etudes were thoroughly enjoyable as J. S. Bach adaptations, even if some of their harmonic modulations seemed a little predictable. Fanny’s Fantasy in G minor held real interest but here the playing seemed slightly on the cautious side. Perhaps I felt the same about the reading of the great Mendelssohn D major Cello Sonata: it aimed at definite structural depth yet exhibited less natural charm and romantic flow than it might. Schenkman’s playing displayed many features of his esteemed harpsichord playing: always effervescent and well-set, yet the evenness of his articulation sometimes seemed to underplay the sparkle and innocent delight in the keyboard writing. While Unterman’s cello had many beautiful yearning moments, the cellist often slowed down the music’s development by employing too short a lyrical line and failing to push out dramatic episodes with full emotional ardour. One might attribute some of this reticence to the constraints of authentic performance, but the lovely playing of the encore – Felix Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op. 109 – did realize the natural grace and romantic feeling more conspicuously.

Overall, here were three concerts of great interest, with the first two absolutely memorable. I am slightly in awe of the high standards Early Music Vancouver achieves in choosing their performers for this festival.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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