Five young people from Leipzig (they all appeared to be twenty-something) really impressed me and, judging from the applause, many others at Duke’s Goodson Chapel in the New Divinity School. These young people grew up in Leipzig, always associated with Bach and Mendelssohn, whose almost physical presence is still felt there at St. Thomas Church and the Gewandhaus concert hall. The four men, Sebastian Krause, countertenor, Tobias Pöche, tenor, Ludwig Böhme, baritone, and Joe Roesler, bass who originated Calmus Ensemble in 1999, are all graduates of the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir. They were later joined by soprano Anja Lipfert, who possesses a voice of wide range, purity and beauty with absolute control of pitch and dynamics. The most (but by no means the only) impressive part of the program was their performance of Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude., S.227. I have heard this piece many times, have sung it, and have listened to many recordings of it. It is often done as a daunting Teutonic task, where the struggle is all too obvious. The amazing thing is that these five singers who grew up with it sang it more lyrically than I have ever heard before, not undisciplined, but lovingly with clear melodic lines and expressive phrasing. It was stunning. I sat through the performance with my mouth agape and a smile on my lips. But that was in the second half of the program.

The concert began with works by two of the most extraordinary Low Country composers of the 16th century. Josquin des Prez was born around 1450-55 and died in 1521, and Orlando di Lasso lived from 1532 to 1594.  Both of these composers developed a style of writing polyphonic music like a weaver taking raw wool and working it into the most extraordinary designs imaginable. In the capable artistry of this septet, Josquin’s De profundis clamavi and Lasso’s first three sets of Lamentations were magically woven before us.  Entrances were always precisely on pitch.  I didn’t see them even use a pitch pipe until later in the program. Their tones were pure with no vibrato or waver.  In gentle passages, the tones sometimes seemed to appear as out of nowhere. Diminuendo cut-offs were equally precise and unwavering, and at times it was difficult to tell exactly when the tone had ceased. In vigorous passages their ensemble was on the mark consistently.  It was a heaping helping of Lasso (25 minutes or so) but gorgeously sung if you could maintain your concentration.

Music of Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-77) was next on the program, sung by the four men of the ensemble. In this period composers were working out different techniques for writing polyphonic music. Inviolata genitrix/Felix virgo, mater Christi is an example of Machaut’s isometric music in which the composer basically assigns the melody to the middle voice; the voice above that sings the melody at twice the original tempo, and the voices below sing it at half tempo. This is an oversimplification to be sure, but the music is hypnotic and charming in its effect. It was also a perfect set up for later music in the program.

Works by two contemporary composers closed the first half of the program: Corpus Christi Carol by Trond Kverno and Village Wedding by John Tavener. The modern music, though recognizable as such did not seem that far from the renaissance pieces we had heard earlier.  Kverno’s carol was lush, warm and inviting. Tavener, as he always seems to do, took us to a place both familiar and removed from us in this work, based on a poem by Angelos Sikelianos and text fragments of the orthodox wedding liturgy. Like all else on the program, it was sung with precision and was ethereal in its effectiveness.

After intermission, we heard three works from the Calmus Ensemble’s hometown of Leipzig. Jesu, meine Freude has already been discussed above. This was followed by Mendelssohn’s Trauergesang Motette, Op. 116. Mendelssohn loved to write pieces for the burgeoning community-based singing associations of the time. Out of this of course came St. Paul, Op 36, Elijah, Op 70, and Christus, Op 97. This short motet was rich in harmonic inventiveness and polyphonic writing, and the Calmus Ensemble was very much at home with it.

The closing piece was a setting of the 23rd Psalm by Leipzig music teacher and composer Wilhelm Weissmann (1900-80).  It was remarkable for the clever tone painting techniques he employed. For example, at one point the lower voices were singing a menacing repetitive chant at two different tempos on the words “Angesicht meiner Feinde” (“the presence of my enemies”). Above that, the soprano sang placidly and confidently, in German of course, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” It was a striking, creative work, and we express gratitude to them for bringing it from Leipzig for us to hear.

This concert was part of the Illumination Series of Duke Performances which, judging from this one, are well worth noting.