Two Worlds at the Beginning of the Easter Festival of Sacred Music

15 April 2019, 15:00
Two Worlds at the Beginning of the Easter Festival of Sacred Music

On Palm Sunday a concert with the subtitle Nova et Vetera opened the 28th Easter Festival of Sacred Music with the theme Ceremony/It is Good to Celebrate the Lord. Aside from Gregorian Chant for Holy Week performed by the ensemble Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, which opened yesterday’s concert, there was also the world premiere of So Shall He Descend by the Estonian composer Toivo Tulev as performed by the soprano Ivana Rusko, the mezzosoprano Bettina Schneebeli, tenor Jaroslav Březina, baritone Jiří Hájek, choristers Aneta Bendová Podracka, Jana Vondrů and Pavla Radostová, the choir Ars Brunensis under choirmaster Dan Kalousek and the Brno Philharmonic under the baton of its principal conductor Denis Russell Davies. The work was written to a commission from the festival and was intended for the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul.

While the Brno Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul is undoubtedly an imposing feature in the city, its acoustic disposition and indisposition cannot be overlooked. The lingering reverberation is indeed kind to choral chants, in large orchestral works however it threatens the delicate nuances of orchestration as well as making whole melodic sections expire in an unintelligible wall of sound. It is praiseworthy that the organisers of the Easter Festival thought of this operational difficulty and tried to be considerate of the cathedral and audiences. The Gregorian Chant that was performed by the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis under David Eben is at home here. And with the intention of fully using the acoustic potential of the cathedral the festival addressed the Estonian composer Toivo Tulev, who visited the cathedral several times to better understand its acoustic possibilities. The programme thus placed against each other the oldest still active Christian layer of musical tradition and the premiere of a religious composition speaking to the listener in the contemporary musical language.

Gregorian Chant definitely has a place in the cathedral on Petrov – the long reverberation does not function here as a disruptive element, turning the singers’ voices into an incomprehensible mass, but rather helps to link the individual melodies to peaceful harmony with a meditative purpose. The Schola Gregoriana Pragensis was able to fill the entire space of the cathedral without losing any of their comprehensibility nor their peaceful musical and spiritual context. Even though it might seem that mere Gregorian Chant cannot achieve the diversity of other musical genres and styles, with the selection of differing liturgical elements the ensemble managed to maintain the uniqueness of each work, and not just in the choral context.

While with Gregorian Chant it could have been anticipated the space of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul would not offer imaginary resistance, the premiere of the composition by Toivo Tulev was thanks to the circumstances of its creation the focus of attention. Due to a thorough study of the acoustics it could have been expected to work with greater space and instrumentation that would come to meet the peculiar acoustics of the church. I found it surprising that with minor exceptions all the artists were placed at the front of the church as at any other concert and no singers or instrumentalists were placed in the gallery. In his battle with the long reverberation Tulev fought on another field - the vast majority of the work was heard in an ascetic orchestration consisting of only a few instruments playing together. The actual solo entrances of individual instruments had no significant problems. The tempo was moderate and there were essentially no faster passages in the work. In terms of clarity, the composer began his work modestly - solo instruments were accompanied by long bass line and the rhythmic side of the piece respected the possibilities of the building. As the work progressed however there appeared strange instrumentation steps, which blurred the clarity of the voices. The choir’s singing was occasionally echoed by rogue wind instruments, which unfortunately were in a similar register to the voices, which resulted in reduced melodic and rhythmic comprehensibility. Similarly problematic sections appeared during the singing of the soloists, which was partially obscured by the influence of the instrumentation, which was a problem especially for the tenor Jaroslav Březina and the baritone Jiří Hájek. The darkened and in places operatic voice timbre of the mezzosoprano Bettina Schneebeli would also come across much better in a different context. The soprano Ivana Rusko was thanks to the natural clarity of the soprano part was saved from this issue. The problem of this dichotomy and discontinuities between vocal and instrumental ingredients were sticking points, although only occasionally, but logically to the detriment of the work. The entrances of the choir Ars Brunensis could have been more precise, but despite that in this case the acoustics were paradoxically an aid. The performance of the Brno Philharmonic was not bad, but the conductor Denis Russell Davies could have added to the diversity of the rhythmic components, as greater differences would have helped the piece. In this production the music wafted slowly freed from dynamic and rhythmic twists like Wagner under anaesthetic. It would certainly be interesting to see how the work would fare in a different church and whether its shortcomings were due to the composer or the acoustics of Brno’s sacred space.

The opening concert of the 28th Easter Festival of Sacred Music set two total different worlds against each other – the first rightfully belongs in the cathedral on Petrov, while the other is still looking for its place. They are certainly steps in the right direction and programming is to be commended for their efforts to offer Petrov a work that would take full advantage of the local space. Yet it will probably still take a while before new music makes Brno’s cathedral its own.

Schola Gregoriana Pragensis:

Hasan El-Dunia, Ondřej Holub, Jan Kukal, Ondřej Maňour, Ondřej Múčka, Stanislav Předota, Michal Medek and artistic director Eben  

Tulev: So Shall He Descend

soloists Ivana Rusko, Bettina Schneebeli, Jaroslav Březina and Jiří Hájek vocals

small chorus Aneta Bendová Podracká, Jana Vondrů and Pavla Radostová

Ars Brunensis / Dan Kalousek

Brno Philharmonic / Dennis Russell Davies

Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, Petro

Photo by Petr Francán

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