Paulus-Chor Zürich’s Sprightly, Plaintive, Idyllic The Apostles

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Elgar, The Apostles: Paulus-Chor Zürich, Ars Canora Zürich, Camerata Cantabile Orchestra / Stephan Fuchs (conductor and cantor), Pauluskirche, Zurich, 22.9.2018. (CCr)


Blessed Virgin and Angel – Nathalie de Montmollin
Mary Magdalene – Marlene Lichtenberg
St John – Tino Brütsch
St Peter – Robert Koller
Jesus – Lisandro Abadie
Judas – René Perler

Would Italy or Germany ever neglect a native son of the calibre of England’s Edward Elgar, are his choral works as underperformed at home as they are abroad? Or is it the other way around, that Elgar is one of England’s better kept secrets, like Cumbria and Carol Reed? Either way, hearing Elgar’s Apostles in Switzerland has something of a rare bird sighting: sprightly, plaintive, idyllic.

Switzerland is fertile ground for Elgar. There is a lofty tradition of choral societies that is very much alive here, and Zurich alone has over fifty active choirs. Typically, one pays hefty dues for the privilege of singing, there are statutes and a board (this is even required by law for official clubs), and regular attendance at rehearsal is mandatory, with the expectation that you study the score during the week. Two programmes a year is standard. Having a hobby in Switzerland is often like having a part-time job in other parts of the world; the Swiss set the bar for ‘amateur’ remarkably high.

This is the sort of infrastructure that enables conductor Stephan Fuchs, himself the founder of two choirs and leader of a third, to attempt bold and demanding concerts with amateur singers. In the last few years alone, he has conducted his choirs through Britten’s The Company of Heaven, Honegger’s Le Roi David, a passion by Carl Loewe, and a mass by Arvo Pärt, on top of several smaller works. The audiences don’t always come in droves, and the coffers hardly overflow, but it is an absolute treasure to witness the labour of love that these many concerts entail.

Consider what it means to perform a work like The Apostles, with a huge orchestra, six soloists given lush and languid arias, and expansive choir parts splintered across a patchwork of SATB voices, all of which must be brought together. The concert was a joint effort between the larger Paulus Chor and the more specialised Ars Canora, both led by Fuchs. Apart from the odd clipped line lost in the pace of things, apart from a few fortes that were not brought back down to earth with the grace of a falling feather, all parties succeeded. The orchestra Camerata Cantabile were over 40-strong, and sounded both powerful and detailed. Fuchs maintained a full orchestral sound that framed the singing capably – not usurping it, but spurring it forth in ways large and small.

If only the two choirs had responded more in kind. Primarily in the prologue and in the first half, one saw the price of a Swiss mentality of perfection amongst at least a handful of the assembled singers: a whiff of apprehension at singing in English here, a fatal timidity in swelling phrases there. Strangely, it didn’t sound like a group that was under-rehearsed, but one that was not always exploiting the commanding role they had been afforded in the limelight. This improved markedly throughout the evening, and by the second half, there was a suitably understated insistence to subtler passages and a new boldness of sound overall.

As for the soloists, the Paulus Kirche heard in Lisandro Abadie a Jesus of staggering sincerity and vocal ardour. When Jesus blessed Simon and renamed him Peter, Abadie wasn’t just portraying the establishment of the Christian church; he was using his penetratingly full and subtle sound to convey his love to Peter, so that Peter could use that love as the basis of his faith.

Singing the part of Peter was Robert Koller, the other solo triumph of the concert. If he didn’t get the grandest arias of the work, he used the stark boom of his bass to show great intensity and vulnerability. His singing alongside the chorus in the palace of the high priest was a high point for both: tense and dramatic and marvellously crisp.

There are two women’s parts in Elgar’s work, which, it must be said, doesn’t always know its exact storytelling focus in its exploration of the apostles, but which nevertheless always conveys a very human gospel story. Nathalie de Montmollin’s Mary had lovely dynamics and would have benefited from more variety of colour. Marlene Lichtenberg brought a lavish warmth to her singing of Mary Magdalene and was gifted with some of the most exquisite music of the piece. Alas, her English was not always up to snuff, and worse than the way the role sat too low in her voice were her sometimes marbley consonants and the effect this had on her otherwise impressive lyricism.

That Judas is given a major role is another example of this work’s affection and humanity. Bass René Perler settled by the second half on a diction and vibrato that lent his Judas a touching resonance; his sound grew to evoke that of German bass Ernst Gerold Schramm.

If the rest of the world is asked to maintain the choral gardens of Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, why shouldn’t German-speaking audiences return the favour and seek out more works by the likes of Elgar? One can only admire the indefatigable efforts of Stephan Fuchs and countless others that yielded such a successful concert. It is easier to nourish the old when the soil is replenished with something new.

Casey Creel

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