In the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, an extraordinary event took place as two of Durham's leading music groups – the Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham and the Ciompi Quartet of Duke University – joined forces to offer an all-Schubert program of exceptional – and exceptionally rare – small-scale works. Eighteen scores that embraced chamber music and music for chamber choir in various configurations, with and without accompaniment, shed new and most welcome light on one of Western music's most productive composers.
The music ran the gamut from early pieces dating from Schubert's 18th year to mature works from a mere dozen years later, which is to say from near the end of his tragically brief life. The program reflected the keen insight of choral director Rodney Wynkoop and the quartet: Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Fred Raimi, cello. The evening's one solo singer was alto Leanne Agee. Pianist David Cole provided the keyboard accompaniments, assisted on one number by Scott Hill.
The sanctuary is resonant, and while balance and blend were uniformly good, there were times when the acoustics seemed to impede vocal clarity.
The evening was significantly enhanced by superb program notes by Susan Dakin, amplified by spoken introductions to some of the offerings.
Even life-long Schubert fans who have travelled widely and who possess substantial collections of scores and/or recordings surely heard many new things on this occasion. Chances are good that the Quartettsatz in C Minor, D.703, was among the best-known works, but few who hadn't read Otto Eric Deutsch's Thematic Catalog would have known that there exists with it a fragment of an andante, cited by Pritchard in his spoken introduction to the piece (but not heard this time). The other score played by the Ciompi, the Quartet No. 9, in G Minor, D.173, written in 1815, is often lumped with other juvenilia, but it is in some respects a break-out piece, for there are (in the slow movement, in particular) strong indications of the kinds of "endless" melodic lines that were much later to inspire Schumann to call Schubert's last big orchestral work "The symphony of heavenly length." These two performances, one on each half of the program, were radiant, more than fulfilling expectations raised when Wynkoop introduced the ensemble as "the incomparable Ciompi Quartet."
The choral music was equally revelatory. Most of this music has been recorded, but as noted even specialists are unlikely to have heard all of these works. A few linger in the memory from long-ago recordings by stellar solo artists, drawn together by Deutsche Grammophon and other enterprising companies for vocal trio and quartet albums, some of which are available now on YouTube.* Indeed many of the pieces can also be done with single voices for each part. But one of the supreme delights of this particular concert was the excellence and skill of the assembled vocalists, singing together or in smaller groupings of men or women alone. Wynkoop remains a master of all things choral, and the precision, absolute intonation, impeccable diction, and overall blend of these artists proved as exceptional as the program itself.
They began with two short pieces – actually they were all fairly short – for mixed chorus, one early ("Lebenslust," or "Die Geselligkeit," D. 609, from 1818) and one late (a cantata for Irene Kiesewetter, D.936, from 1827); the choral portion of the first half ended with "An die Sonne," D.439, the music of which strongly suggested (as Wynkoop observed) some of the earlier vocal music of Haydn. In between came three pieces for men's choir (TTBB, so there was considerable texture and harmonic depth within what might have seemed a somewhat circumscribed structure). These spoke of love and death and longing and were standouts of the evening. (The last one was in Italian, and another piece, from part two, was in Medieval Latin, but generally these were German works, settings of mostly contemporaneous poems by some distinguished writers, including Schiller, of "Ode to Joy" fame.)
After a brief intermission the women of the Chamber Choir offered a celebration of life, a (parody) lament on the death of a Syrian warrior (no kidding), and a notable setting of "Zögernd leise," D.920 (known as "Ständchen" but not to be confused with the famous "Serenade" from Schwanengesang.) Here soloist Agee sang with her colleagues to deliver this "Notturno," another of the evening's vocal highlights – and another gem from the year before Schubert's death, in 1828.
The men returned for a quartet of quartets (if we may put it thus!), including two of the four fairly late Gesänge listed as D.983, capped by a rousing drinking song (D.847). Again the men were exceptionally fine as an ensemble, projecting their texts with crisp precision.
After the Ciompi's second offering, all the singers returned for three choruses that turned out to be among the evening's more familiar vocal pieces. The second of these, "Der Tanz," D.826, was inspired by the same Irene Kiesewetter who sparked the second piece on this program, and the third, the grand finale, was another drinking song, a recipe, of sorts, for punch and – as Wynkoop reminded us – for making spiked lemonade from the lemons all of us receive in this life.
We were richly blessed by these artists and this music. Let's hope that additional explorations of Schubert's genius aren't put off till 2028!
*One example from these LPs is the evening's opening work, "Lebenslust," is available online here.