Eternal spheres, sublime cello: The first of the Festival’s choirs

Contemporary as well as classical compositions belong to the repertoire of the fine SOLAND choir. Its members confidently venture into the modern genre as readily as they tackle the classical vocal repertoire. And inasmuch as the choir is interested in the art of developing sound, it engages professionals and newcomers alike in joint performances.

And it was the SOLAND Choir that marked the launch of a new genre of this year’s «Kammermusik plus» chamber concert series at the Festival Musikdorf Ernen: a choir performance in Ernen’s lovely parish church, St. Georg. I had seen the singers up the valley in Binn early in the day of the performance, a jolly foursome had come in for a rest and a meal on the terrace of the historic Ofenhorn Hotel.

The Soland configuration is presenting its latest program as «Nicht Bach, Meer sollte es heissen,» citing a line by Ludwig von Beethoven, «Not Bach, it should be more.» In keeping with that title, the program began and ended with two works drawn from Johann Sebastian Bach’s «Art of the Fugue.» With the first, the choir set a melodious framework for the whole program, and heralded solo cellist Xenia Jankovic’s sublime cello accompaniment.

Jankovic, the Artistic Director of the «Kammermusik plus» series, also shone in the choir-cello duets of a second piece, «Svyati» (1995), a work by the since-deceased English composer, John Taverner. Here was an inspired performance, a somber allusion to a funeral mass that almost echoed Eastern mysticism, the cello line often set against the continuum of the bass. When the higher voices broke in, often in unexpected intervals of fourths and fifths, the mood ascended from funerary to celestial, the very slow accents of cello and choir progressing three notes up the scale put us on Holy ground. Especially the solo cello’s last three ascending notes, played alone, echoed like an unanswered question that broached an eternal sphere.

The entire choir was dressed in formal black, the women outfitted, too, with corn-yellow sashes they could wear as they chose; the men with dashing necks scarves in the same color. Visually, it made a lovely complement to the ornate decorations of the church’s Baroque interior. To their credit, the singers became part of a Gesamtbild, an integral part of the hymn rather than a distraction from it.

In Anton Arensky’s «Three Quartets for 4-voice choir with violincello, Op. 57,» the cellist sometimes varied her solo score with a lighter dynamic, but always embraced her instrument to a degree that made it seem like the very extension of herself. Her facial expressions—devoted, coquettish, inquisitive—echoed the score again and again. The music itself echoed in the coppery silk of her simple, elegant gown, which integrated her nicely, too, into the ornamental setting.

Johannes Brahms' song cycle «Zigeunerlieder» for choir and piano was also performed handsomely. The songs put a great responsibility on the shoulders of three soloists, who carried their lines alongside Paolo Giacometti’s demonstrative piano accompaniment with assurance and élan.

Throughout, and to her great credit, Choir Director Ruth Soland made a terrifically positive impression. Her gestures were unmistakably clear, and she mouthed every word with the same kind of distinctive enunciation that a body this large (18 singers) must also employ for clarity of expression. Not only was the acoustic in the St. Georg superb, but my seatmate and I had an extra treat in the concert: a young family sat right in front of us whose three young boys—perhaps 5, 7 and 9—also showed interest and appreciation in the music. Their reaction to one of the eleven of Brahms’ «Gypsy Songs» for four voices and piano, Op. 103 struck me particularly. During the third song, «Wisst Ihr, wann mein Kindelein am allerschönsten ist?» (Do you know when my little child is at its best?), the smiles exchanged among them and the parents were nothing less than heart-warming. The dad’s patting his youngest on the head made me wish that I, too, had just as long a lifetime of such wonderful vocal music ahead.

Ernen, Tuesday, 31 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet