German Choirs Surge Ahead
Gott im Himmel! The world domination of British cathedral choirs is under threat. A teacher at St Thomas's School, Leipzig, Germany, hands me a new double CD of Bach's Christmas Oratorio BWV248, sung by the same all-male Thomanerchor for which the work was written in 1734/35 and conducted by the present Cantor Georg Christoph Biller. The boys make an immediately distinctive and thrilling sound. Their tone is hard, brittle, perfectly in tune and free of vibrato. They ornament the cadences as one and sound like feisty, pitch-perfect street urchins. By comparison the pure, sweet voices of British choristers now sound prissy, sexless and affected.
The soprano arias and recitatives are sung by the leading pair of 14-year-olds, Paul Bernewitz and Friedrich Praetorius. Their tone is arrow-straight and combative. In Part VI, Bernewitz rounds on Herod who is sung with slimey connivance by bass Panajotis Iconomou. 'Du Falscher!' - you liar! - Bernewitz crisply pipes, like the boy who told the King he was nude. The youths are playful in the threefold echo duet, the one mimicking the other's Ja or Nein and the obbligato oboe both of them.
The singers are accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester which also dates from Bach's day. Period trumpets squeal the seraphic fanfare of the opening chorus with siren urgency. The choir responds, energetically bouncing off the consonants. Strings and wind ping-pong the phrases in Part V's opener 'Ehre sei dir' with infectious syncopations and bright, optimistic tone. Glowing horns in the concluding choral of Part IV summon warm hunting pastures in the bucolic key of F major. Biller crafts a performance which flows compellingly between tension and release, bustle and calm, threat and promise.
Mezzo soprano Ingeborg Danz is the lone female on the platform. She sounds warmly protective in Part I's 'Bereite dich Sion' - more wrap-up-well-dear than look-out-someone's-coming - and mildly scolding against the whiplash strings in the No49 Recitative 'Warum wollt ihr erschrecken?'. Tenors Christoph Genz (arias) and Martin Petzold (Evangelist) are both ex-Thomanerchor boys, the former now smooth and pleading, the latter assertive and clear of diction. Other old boys of Bach's establishment took different routes. Die Prinzen became a top East German pop band in the days before and after the end of Communism. They had a number one hit with Kuessen Verboten (Kissing Banned) in the 1990s and sang lines in their 2002 single Frauen sind die neuen Maenner (women are the new men) unworthy of former choristers.
When Die Prinzen were trebles, the Communists forbade the choir to sing anywhere but in St Thomas' Church. The choir survived the forty years of religion's outlawing and, since Die Wende (the Turn, or the fall of the Berlin Wall), has not only found again its ancient pride but also begun to realise its commercial value. There is now huge competition for places. The Thomanerchor's lower voices are also scholars at the school yet their sound is amazingly mature for 18-year-olds. The alto line comprises last year's trebles and lacks the flutey falsetto tone of some British cathedral counter-tenors. With all voices sharing the same rigorous training, the ensemble is both richly homogeneous and different from any other. The Thomanerchor's Weihnachtsoratorium CD is quite simply the best account of the work available It is produced by Leipzig's own Rondeau label, Catalogue number ROP4034/35.
The bass Iconomou is a product of the rival Toelzerchor. He sang with Karajan at Salzburg in 1984, when a trumpeter, according to an infamous anecdote, brought the famously stern conductor's attention to a certain passage in Act III of Rosenkavalier.
'Letter H, bar 34,' said the trumpeter.
'Yes, what of it?' said Karajan.
'The A flat leading to B natural in the second trumpet.'
'And? Your point is?' demanded the increasingly impatient maestro.
'I really like that bit,' replied the brass player like a naughty schoolboy as his colleagues bit their fists in barely suppressed merriment.