Germany: Sunday 5 November 2000
Few settings for a concert of "Symphonic Psalms" could be more appropriate than the splendour of the vast Gedächtnis Church in the lovely historic imperial city of Speyer in Germany's Rheinpfaltz region. Its 19th. century Gothic Revival architecture echoed the evening's theme of reclothing traditional psalms in the musical splendour of romanticism. The large audience were made doubly aware of the musical journey of each of the texts by the happy device of the Basle Cantor Marcel Lang singing each in the original Hebrew, followed by the same psalm rendered in Gregorian Chant by the choral scholars of the Kiedrich Choirboys (though they were all "boys" quite some time ago!). These two contrasting series of powerful performances before each of the major works underlined the devotional origins of the text - the one plaintive and, in such a setting, exotic and the other calm and ascetic.
The first of the romantic works was Raff's magnificent Overture Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott op.127. Luther's great hymn is quoted extensively in this work and, after the Hebrew and Gregorian Chant versions of psalm 46, the Pfalz Choral Society sang the reformation chorale itself in all its stark simplicity. Conductor Udo-Reiner Follert's vigorous direction of the Witold-Lutoslawski Philharmonie of Wroclaw produced a very satisfying performance of this, one of Raff's works more familiar to modern audiences. From the atmospheric slow introduction to the grand closing chorale and stretta, Follert's tempi were impeccable and he produced fine playing from the Polish orchestra, marred only at the beginning by some insecurity amongst the violins, soon corrected. The choir's singing of Luther's hymn served to underline the subtlety of Raff's integration of the famous tune and also the appropriateness of the other material which he employed in this exciting extended piece.
Dvoràk's setting of Psalm 149 for mixed choir produced a patchier result - the choir sounding rather under-rehearsed in this stormy, dramatic music. The acoustic of the vast church which produced such clarity in the preceding contributions from Cantor Lang and the Kiedrich Choirboys proved ill suited to the complex textures and caused the choir's singing to be overshadowed by the orchestra's almost Wagnerian contribution. Again, Follert's tempi were well chosen and, despite the choir evidently struggling with parts of this fine fast-paced piece, its 12 minute length seemed all too short.
Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 95, again preceded by Cantor Lang and the choristers, was an altogether happier experience. The composer's writing was well suited to the church's acoustic and the previous problems of balance were absent from this 25 minute work. The choir were much more secure in the music which seemed to offer fewer challenges to them - secure enough, indeed, to sway rhythmically through most of "Kommet herzu"! The solo contributions from tenor Christoph Rösel, Soprano Adelheid Vogel and Alto Elvira Dreßen were exemplary and, again, the Wroclaw orchestra played with precision and verve.
The longest work of the evening was Raff's great setting of Psalm 130 De Profundis. As well as final contributions from Marcel Lang and the Kiedrich Choirboys, the choir preceded the Raff with an A Capella performance of the Psalm itself. In six linked sections Raff's op.141 is a major work, lasting some 35 minutes in this performance. The solemn orchestral opening set the serious tone of the piece, which was emphasised by the bass' opening De Profundis - unlike Dvoràk and Mendelssohn, Raff set the Latin text. The first section for the chorus was as dramatic as the Dvoràk work and it proved equally taxing to the choir. Raff's complex eight part writing was ill served too by the 3:1 preponderance of women's voices - although the weightier men's voices should have counteracted this had they been more secure themselves.
The second section Si iniquitates was again foreshadowed by a short orchestral introduction and was less fiery than its predecessor. This easing of the tension wasn't Raff's idea. He wrote this section for men's voices rather than Follert's alto substitutes and it should have been taken at a much faster tempo leading to a heightening of the drama. What we heard was far removed from Raff's intentions - but perhaps because of this the choir seemed happier here and the repeated, almost spoken, "quis" was nonetheless well executed.
Adelheid Vogel' s Qui apud te propitiatio proved a shimmering interlude of serenity - a sparingly romantic aria to which the choir added a backdrop of interweaving textures leading to the fourth section, A custodia matutina, in which Raff slowly built up the romantic fervour to a great climax on the word "redemptio". The concluding Et ipse redimet was a great fugue in Raff's finest style, baroque in inspiration but totally romantic in its execution. The final "Amen"'s were a grand and fittingly expansive end to such a great rediscovery - all the more perplexing therefore that they were met with the same silence from the audience as had greeted all the evening's earlier performances. Once prompted by a single brave soul, however, the church erupted into extended applause which was richly deserved.
It would be fair to say that, certainly in the Dvoràk and the Raff, the Pfalz Choral Society was stretched to, and sometimes beyond, their limits. Things weren't helped by the great church's booming acoustic which favoured the choir in the Raff and the orchestra in the Dvoràk. That said, all four soloists and the "boy" choristers were admirable and the Witold-Lutoslawski Philharmonie performed these unfamiliar works excellently - doing justice to Udo-Reiner Follert's exciting and intelligent conducting. For the Raffianer there was a text book performance of Ein feste Burg and a tantalising but frustrating first taste of a great Raff work crying out for a fully professional concert hall performance.