boccherini cropLuigi Boccherini, in a portrait by Italian painter Pompeo Batoni.There are a large number of composers who are more renowned for their connections to great historical musical figures than for their own creative products. History seems to be particularly unkind to those from the Baroque and Classical eras: J.S. Bach’s sons are all contextualized as such; Leopold Mozart is known for being Wolfgang's father; Johann Georg Albrechtsberger was Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher; and Michael Haydn was Franz Joseph’s brother. It is interesting to note that, while it is easy to think of these ‘other’ composers as appendices – occasional additions to canonic concert programs intended to pique audience interest – much music by Haydn and Albrechtsberger was performed throughout the 19th century, particularly at St. Florian’s monastery in Linz, where Anton Bruckner was organist.

Luigi Boccherini, however, is an exception, for while his music underwent the same lost-and-rediscovered fate as many of his contemporaries, Boccherini developed his compositional technique apart from the major European musical centres, spending most of his career in Italy and Spain. Much of Boccherini’s music follows the model of Joseph Haydn and was neglected after his death, the dismissive sobriquet ‘Haydn's wife’ introduced in the 19th century to illustrate Boccherini’s similarity to the great Austrian composer (who similarly spent his career apart from the European musical hubs). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Boccherini’s works were rediscovered and performed ‘for the first time,’ many of them by the appropriately-named Boccherini Quintet.

Boccherini was a gifted virtuoso on the cello and wrote a great number of works for string ensemble and the cello as a solo instrument, presumably to be performed by the composer himself. On April 7 at Victoria College Chapel in Toronto, Scaramella presented “Boccherini and Friends,” a concert of string quintets by Boccherini along with works by Albrechtsberger, Michael Haydn, and Leopold Mozart – lighter fare intended to separate the weightier and thoroughly-developed Boccherini pieces. While both the Albrechtsberger and Mozart works were indeed charming and light, Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in E-flat opened with a notably beautiful adagio con 6 variazioni, a theme-and-variations of notable ingenuity and depth. (Piccolo Concerto Wien has a fine recording of this on the Accent label, recommended for your exploration.)

The three string quintets by Boccherini were surprising, firstly because of their instrumentation. The typical ‘Boccherini quintet’ is for enhanced string quartet: two violins, viola, and two cellos (one virtuoso part played by Boccherini, the other, a simpler bass line, played by a lesser cellist). These three quintets, taken from the Op. 39 collection, were written for two violins, viola, cello and double bass, resulting in a much wider range of sound and greater depth to the bass line, taking the range of a typical string quartet and extending it downwards.

Each of Boccherini’s quintets are very much of the Classical era: a fast, sonata-form opening movement followed by a slower, less structured middle movement, and a rousing rondo-form finale – formal structures identical to those utilized by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. The Scaramella performers’ decision to include all repeats was a wise one; although it made each piece doubly long, the repetition of material enabled first-time listeners to hear, retain and comprehend the development of thematic material as it returned in various iterations.

The Scaramella quintet was in fine form throughout the evening, providing nuance and interest though their interpretations, borrowing from their knowledge of both Baroque- and Classical-era repertoire. Born in 1743, Boccherini composed in a primarily galant style, building on the works of era-bridging composers such as C.P.E. Bach. Such jubilant, major-key music can sound farcical and superficial if not approached from a musical perspective, and while there was plenty of playfulness and joy in their playing, the quintet never came across as trite or banal.

To many in the audience, this concert was a first introduction to Boccherini’s music, a fine essay in the artistry of this largely-unknown composer. The history of music is full of these forgotten figures, and with scholars and performers discovering new and interesting works every year, we look forward to more illuminating and explorative presentations from fine groups such as Scaramella.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins at a previous Tafelmusik concert. Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby.Finding a suitable environment for J.S. Bach’s B-Minor Mass is no small challenge. Although ideally suited for the concert hall due to its duration, complexity and the personnel required in performance, it feels slightly unnatural to hear this monumental essay on the Latin rite displayed in such sterile conditions, far removed from its native liturgical context.

Perhaps this ‘problem’ is not a problem at all, merely the cognitive dissonance produced by our universal understanding of Bach as a devoutly religious person and his music as an expression of those religious beliefs. As a recent example, a March 30 article by Michael Marissen in The New York Times was titled “Bach Was Far More Religious Than You Might Think” and considers Bach to be “a religious conservative at odds with the progressivist currents of his day, and ours,” supporting this spiritual biography with Bach’s own marginal comments from his three-volume Calov Study Bible.

According to Bach himself, “the aim or final goal of all music shall be nothing but the honour of God and the recreation of the Soul.” However, the B-Minor Mass was not performed in its entirety until 1859, more than a century after Bach’s death, and has been a concerted work ever since. How, then, do we bridge this gap between Bach’s loftily sacred aspirations for the B Minor Mass and the inherently worldly atmosphere of the concert hall?

At its recent April 6 concert, Tafelmusik’s approach to the B Minor Mass was one of detail – and the expression achieved through that detail was little less than divine. With Ivars Taurins at the helm, every note had direction and every phrase had shape, and these microscopic musical elements translated into a macroscopic whole which realized Bach’s detailed score in an unparalleled way. From the first notes of the Kyrie to the final Dona nobis pacem, nothing seemed out of place or beyond the performers’ control, so that those in attendance were able to listen beyond the minutiae and hear the work in its entirety, like a painting in which each brushstroke combines with others to create a larger cumulative work.

Taurins’ use of the soloists in the opening movement to create a terraced dynamic effect was very successful, as was the decision to have the solo quintet sing the Et incarnatus est. These changes in timbre and texture not only provided sonic variety but also allowed us to hear these fine singers more frequently, each of whom were superb individually and in the ensemble.

As in every Tafelmusik performance, tuning and temperament were exact and lent an additional degree of fidelity to the performance. Nothing is more luminous than chords played in pure intonation and we were treated to countless numbers of these throughout the evening, whether in the densely chromatic minor-key Crucifixus and Confiteor movements or the joyously major-key Sanctus and Osanna. The choir’s use of German Latin added extra potency to the text, with elements of Classical Latin replaced by the slightly more percussive and pointed German, lending the interpretation a strong rhythmic vitality.

As the final chord of the Dona nobis pacem faded away, the outburst of applause seemed inadequate and improper, a worldly attempt at expressing appreciation for the incomparable profundity and beauty of the previous hours. Although a standing ovation was indeed deserved, it took this audience member more than a few minutes to regain his composure, and I remember neither leaving Jeanne Lamon Hall nor the return trip home – I was captivated and moved in a way that no other concert has managed to do in a very long time.

If there really are angels singing perpetually in the afterlife, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them singing the B-Minor Mass over and over again. It is a tremendous work of art – complex yet inspiring, superficially appealing yet deeply spiritual – and we should consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have such magnificent interpreters in our midst.

Tafelmusik presented Bach's B-Minor Mass (conducted by Ivars Taurins, with soloists Dorothee Mields, Laura Pudwell, Charles Daniels and Tyler Duncan) April 5-8 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre (and April 10 at George Weston Recital Hall), Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Gerald Neufeld conducts the Guelph Chamber Choir and Musica Viva Orchestra in rehearsal for the March 31 concert. Photo credit: Geoff Warder.“Thank you for bringing us great music,” said Nicole Neufeld in a heartwarming onstage tribute to her father’s 36 years of work with the Guelph Chamber Choir. Gerald Neufeld is stepping down as artistic director of the Guelph Chamber Choir, having led it for 36 of its 38 years. In a farewell concert on Saturday March 31, 2018, the choir performed Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) and other smaller works. This was the final performance of the Guelph Chamber Choir’s 2017/18 season, and the final concert with Gerald Neufeld as its artistic director.

The first half of the concert was the German Requiem. The second half comprised six smaller works, including Ola Gjeilo’s The Ground (which is the “Pleni sunt coeli” section of the “Sanctus” in his larger Sunrise Mass); Agnus dei, arranged by Kenneth Jennings with Latin text on a choral rendition of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations; and Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s Antiphon, the final movement of her three-piece Let All the World in Ev’ry Corner Sing Easter Anthems.

In an interview the week prior to the concert, Neufeld spoke to The WholeNote about his upcoming final performance. “I wanted to fit into the Easter Weekend,” says Neufeld. “Rather than doing a Latin requiem, I wanted to do one of my favourite works, [Brahms’ Requiem]. It’s such a wonderfully crafted piece. It’s not about sadness, it’s about remembering and joyousness. It’s really for the living rather than the dead.”

For this performance, Neufeld decided on a historically-informed rendition, with Musica Viva Orchestra on period instruments. “It may seem a bit strange to sing the Requiem with only 60 singers and 43 in the orchestra,” says Neufeld, “but the period instruments are so much softer and blend easier with the voice. Brahms’ orchestra wasn’t too much larger than what we’ll have. It’s almost like chamber music in a way. It’s bringing together Brahms’ past with his present, using some Classical sensibilities with newer Romantic harmonic material in a very interesting way.

“I’ve been performing with period players for two decades now,” Neufeld continues. “I love working with them because they want to understand the musical text and how to declaim the music. It makes the music much more effective; it communicates much more clearly to the audience. Our audiences have really loved it.” With a packed house and a thoroughly pleased audience, Neufeld’s artistic choices continue to have a strong impact on audiences in Guelph and the area: the Guelph Chamber Choir sang its first three concerts of its 2017/18 season to a sold-out hall.

At the concert on Saturday, Neufeld’s interpretation using period instruments resulted in a softer, less complex sound in the orchestra and a light, articulate choir. The choir was well-balanced, solidly supported by an exceptional bass section. The first movement of the Requiem does not include violins; with the bass sound of the lower strings and viola anchoring the sound, the choir was free to focus on the music’s emotional content.

Brahms’ Requiem was beautifully presented. Daniel Lichti provided a robust and emotional presentation as bass-baritone soloist. There was a bit of a disconnect at times between his and the choir’s deliveries – most pronounced in the third movement, where Lichti’s emotional and operatic interpretation of “Lord, teach me” was not equally repeated in the choir’s more muted response immediately following him. However, towards the end of the third movement, Neufeld’s period interpretation allowed the “Der gerechten” fugal section to ride above the long-sustains of the double basses without being thrown off. Sheila Dietrich, the soprano soloist, provided a light and comforting solo in the fifth movement. This movement is a cornerstone of the Requiem, providing an angelic moment of healing in this work, which Neufeld describes in the program notes as “comfort for the living that recognizes the human journey through times of grief, but also offers a sense of hope, victory and joy at the end of that journey.”

There were two technical issues that detracted from the overall impact of the piece. The first was ongoing instances within the soprano section of uncontrolled and abundant vibrato, especially noticeable in the fourth “Wie lieblich” movement. The second was recurring registration issues in the tenor sections. With some tenors chest-strong and others in head-tone, there wasn’t an even sound in exposed tenor lines like the “Zu nehmen Preis und Ehre” fugal section of the sixth movement. Otherwise, the blend of the choir was excellent, with a very solid grounding in the basses and a majestic alto presence. Neufeld manages to massage the tension of the Requiem, never letting the choir become too loud and allowing the suspense in the music to blossom slowly.

Neufeld has many memories over his 36 very successful years with the choir. He mentions a few great works among his memories, many of which were done with the Guelph Chamber Choir. He thinks of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Monteverdi Vespers, and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Some of these memories are from abroad as well: “Performing in Austria at the Mozarteum, and the Czech Republic, in the old city of Kroměříž in the Bishop’s palace ballroom. Performing in those acoustical environments [was] really something,” he shares.

Neufeld is not done with music; he would be happy to guest conduct, and loves the rehearsal process. He feels though, that “it’s time for someone younger, who has more energy and new ideas, to take the choir forward. It’s always a good time, when things are going well, to make that transition,” he says. As the Guelph Chamber Choir enters a transition year, there will be two concerts conducted by two conductors shortlisted for Neufeld’s replacement. In the fall of 2018, Patrick Murray takes the reins, while in the spring of 2019, Charlene Pauls leads the choir. One of the two will replace Neufeld. “I would like them to be successful in whatever they choose,” says Neufeld. “I’m looking forward to being in the audience and hearing what comes from the choir under a new director.

“The thing I will remember the most are the people in the choir,” adds Neufeld. “They come because they want to, not because they have to. One of the most memorable conversations I’ve had was with three doctors during the SARS crisis. I was surprised they were at rehearsal when all of this was going on. They just looked at me and said, ‘We can’t afford not to be here. This helps us manage to get through.’ This is a big part of what choirs do. For lack of a better term: this spiritual energy, to keep going with our daily lives, working together.”

In a surprise, the choir performed a very touching final piece in tribute to Neufeld: Ron Jeffers’ setting of Fred Mitchell’s poem “I have had singing.” With his family onstage, Neufeld’s work with the choir was perfectly summed up – with great music, happy voices, and a touching farewell.

The Guelph Chamber Choir, featuring Sheila Dietrich (soprano), Daniel Lichti (bass-baritone) and the Musica Viva Orchestra, performed Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) in farewell to outgoing artistic director Gerald Neufeld on March 31, 2018, 7:30pm at River Run Centre, Guelph.

image1bannerPianist Jan Lisiecki in performance at Bravo Niagara! on March 10. Photo credit: Jerry Placken.It’s been more than two years since Jan Lisiecki’s last solo piano recital in Toronto. Not wanting to wait another year for his Koerner Hall concert next March, I took advantage of Bravo Niagara!’s serendipitous scheduling to hear this exceptional pianist perform March 10 in the historic St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The critically acclaimed 22-year-old Calgary-born Polish-Canadian is now an established professional, with four Deutsche Grammophon recordings, and his extensive touring has made him a member of the one million mile club. The Bravo Niagara! recital was bracketed by appearances with the OSM in Montreal on March 6 and 8 and a solo date in São Paulo, Brazil on March 13.

Lisiecki has always been comfortable speaking to his audience, charming and at ease, with a maturity beyond his years. After opening his recital with Chopin’s two Op.55 Nocturnes, he took to the microphone to introduce the “night’s music theme” that tied together the evening’s repertoire. He spoke of Schumann being awoken in the middle of the night by a brass chorale, an event he soon learned had coincided with his brother’s death and which later inspired the writing of Nachtstücke (Night Pieces) Op.23, the next work on the program. The opening movement felt like a march in the dark; the second, more harmonically complex, had the sense of looking back. After the turmoil of the third movement, Lisiecki brought the piece to a satisfying place of resolution and repose.

Lisiecki introduced Ravel’s demonic Gaspard de la Nuit by demonstrating at the piano how the repetition of one note and the harmonies Ravel wrote around it create a chilling picture. In Ondine, the first movement, Lisiecki’s unerring phrasing was coupled with a technical prowess that served the music. Le Gibet was well-paced, icily haunting, its inexorability evoking the spectre of death. Scarbo, the third and final movement, was (Lisiecki told us) the result of Ravel’s intention to write the hardest piece ever written. Lisiecki’s dazzling performance of it brought the generous helping of music before intermission to an exhilarating conclusion.

Rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de fantaisie Op.3 is a youthful composition that nonetheless typifies the Russian keyboard virtuoso’s later works in its tone colours, textures and harmonies. The Elégie harkens back to Chopin, and the famous Prélude with its searing lyricism is one of the composer’s most popular pieces. Lisiecki showed great dynamic range in both and showcased the contrasts in the Mélodie with elan, while bringing out the sinister charm of Polichinelle.

Lisiecki had command of the keyboard throughout the recital, beginning with the pointed rhythm and accelerated rubato of Chopin’s Nocturne Op.55, No.1 and strong voicing of the night music element of Op.55 No.2. The Nocturne Op.72, No.1 was overshadowed by the marvellous fusion of art and technique in Chopin’s Scherzo No.1, which the pianist brought off with matchless impetuosity. He brought a welcome serenity to its lovely midsection before the tumultuous finish produced the evening’s second spontaneous standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki, following his performance at Bravo Niagara! on March 10. Photo credit: Jerry Placken.Träumerei, the matchless Reverie from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, brought the concert to a sublime musical and apt thematic end, a tranquil balance to the force of the Scherzo and a reminder of Lisiecki’s ability to make every note count while working with the quirks of the Yamaha grand piano he was playing.

Jan Lisiecki, presented by Bravo Niagara!, performed at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake on March 10, 2018.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Back to top