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Collegium Vocale Gent: 50th Anniversary
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
PHI LPH033 [6 CDs: 353:42]

The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe is now 73 (though he doesn’t look it), and this delightful box is designed to celebrate an extraordinary half-century of fruitful collaboration with the vocal (and often also instrumental) ensemble Collegium Vocale Gent, which he founded with a group of fellow-students in 1970. The discs also feature two orchestras with which he has been particularly associated in more recent years, the period-instrument Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, which Herreweghe founded in 1991 to perform Romantic and pre-Romantic works, and the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (better known to many under its previous name of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic), of which he is Honorary Conductor.

In fact what we have here is a snapshot of some three years’ worth of recording activity, between 2011 and 2014, quite early in the history of his own label, PHI. If the collection is rather narrowly constrained in chronological terms, however, the repertoire it covers is wide. In the earlier part of their recording career, under the aegis of Harmonia Mundi, Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale were probably best known for their recordings of Baroque repertory, especially Bach; on this occasion, however, we hear them in music ranging from unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony to the Requiem which Dvořák famously composed for the Birmingham Triennial Festival of 1891.

Hearing the six discs one after the other, one becomes aware of how thoroughly the music-making of Herreweghe and the Collegium is undergirded by a consistent (and, to my ear, consistently appealing) aesthetic. This involves above all clarity, fluency, a quest for beauty, acute attentiveness to the sung text and – perhaps most notable of all – an awareness of and ability to communicate the spiritual content of the work in hand. As such Herreweghe’s approach can also be defined by what it is not: never self-indulgent or ostentatious, seldom if ever rushed, and almost entirely free from the abrasiveness and angularity characteristic of many other approaches to ‘historically informed’ performance practice. If this leaves the listener occasionally wanting something more viscerally thrilling or high-powered, so be it: Herreweghe does his thing, and does it extremely well.

This does not mean, of course, that Herreweghe and his forces are anything other than scrupulously attentive to the diverse styles and requirements of individual composers. A case in point is the 2014 recording of the Dvořák Requiem, a work which I was initially surprised to discover Herreweghe had in his repertoire. Sure, several aspects of his performance are far from ‘authentic’ – his choral forces are small, and his soloists and orchestra do not sound remotely Czech, in the way that those of, say, Karel Ančerl (review) or Zdeněk Košler (review) plainly do. Nevertheless the performance emerges as something of a triumph, both on Herreweghe’s own terms and, more importantly, on Dvořák’s. As one might expect, it is at its most memorable in the quieter, prayerful sections such as the Hostias or Pie Jesu, where the (essentially lightweight) soloists combine to moving effect; and Herreweghe’s trademark fluency and patience point up the musical and spiritual unity of what comes across here as in many ways a symphonically conceived work. But he also makes a concerted and successful attempt to enter into Dvořák’s own, highly individual sound world: the Antwerp woodwinds can take on an appropriately ‘out-of-door’, almost rustic character; the Collegium’s basses at times assume a Slavonic darkness and depth that one would not normally associate with them; and Herreweghe makes us very aware, in such passages as the Graduale and Sanctus, of just how much Dvořák remained indebted to Wagner at this stage of his career. Most importantly, Herreweghe seems to me genuinely to ‘get’ what Dvořák is trying to say in spiritual terms: that death is a big deal that must be taken seriously, but that there is no room for panic or terror in what is, for him, the overriding contsext of an absolutely genuine Christian hope. Whatever else he was, Dvořák was no Verdi, and Herreweghe makes us acutely aware of the fact.

For me, this wholly excellent Dvořák recording belongs in the category of performances I would not like to be without, but which do not supplant equally valid ‘classic’ recordings. In other words, for all of Herreweghe’s virtues, no-one does Dvořák quite like Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic. Herreweghe’s 2011 Missa Solemnis seems to me also to belong in this category (though here, for Ančerl read – one almost hesitates to admit such a preference these days – Klemperer). Inevitably, Herreweghe and the Collegium don’t do the monumental grandeur you sometimes really need in Beethoven’s great work of works – I want my Gloria to storm the heavens, for example, in a way that it just doesn’t here. But their approach has many compensations. One of these is, quite simply, the accuracy and sheer beauty of the Collegium’s singing, which comfortably knocks spots off most of the competition and blends ideally with the soft-grained timbres of the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Herreweghe also shapes Beethoven’s great structures with – to use those key words again – unerring clarity and fluency. His seamless transitions between not obviously compatible blocks of sound (that between the ‘Gloriamus te’ and ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, for example, has stayed in my mind) can border almost on the miraculous. For once here, though, he miscalculates in his (normally spot-on) choice of soloists. Whilst suitably mellifluous, Benjamin Hulett is seriously underpowered, most obviously in the tenor’s stentorian declaration ‘et homo factus est’; and David Wilson-Johnson rather lets the side down in his crucial solo at the start the Agnus Dei, where he is both seriously unsteady and all too obviously baritonal.

The other three discs in the set, containing music by Brahms, Victoria and J. S. Bach, are also very successful, and indeed recommendable as potential first choices in the repertoire in question. Herreweghe’s pedigree in Bach Cantatas is well known, and here he turns his attention to four works from the master’s first full liturgical year in Leipzig, 1723–4. This enables him effectively to underline the extent of Bach’s stylistic and emotional range at a particularly stage of his career, as the latter responds to a sequence of texts representing the very different seasons of Epiphany (BWV 73), Ascensiontide (BWV 44) and Trinity (BWV 48 and 109). At the same time, all the cantatas reflect early-modern German Protestantism’s pervasive preoccupation with human sin and suffering being ultimately defeated by the grace and power of God; and all bear witness in different ways to the ongoing importance of the chorale as a focus of worship. Hence they are ideally suited to Herreweghe’s combination of a consistent aesthetic with an alert flexibility to verbal and musical nuance. Undeniably his readings lack a certain drama and drive, of the kind that are in abundant supply in, for example, John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach performances. To my ear, though, this is more than offset by the intense beauty of his forces’ singing and playing (the tenor Thomas Hobbs is particularly golden-toned), and above all by his unmatched ability to convey the unaffectedness interiority of Bach’s very personal approach to faith. So when, for example, Herreweghe’s counter-tenor declares that “Christians must be Christ’s true disciples on earth” or his choir invites the Almighty to “send upon me whatever you will, in life and in death”, the instinctive scepticism of the twenty-first century listener is at least temporarily disarmed. You feel, as with Dvořák, that he just kind of ‘gets’ the composer, and is enabling him to speak for himself in an unusually direct and timeless way.

The ethos of Victoria’s 1605 Requiem, the ‘Officium Defunctorum’, is of course a million miles away from that of Bach’s Leipzig Cantatas, and it makes very different demands on its performers. Needless to say, the (here) thirteen voices of the Collegium Vocale are well up to these, and it is indeed the sheer beauty and technical proficiency of their a cappella singing that, for me, remains the disc’s most lasting impression. Intonation, diction and balance are all in the luxury class, as indeed is the essential creaminess of the choir’s tone. Herreweghe’s own contribution is of course also a major one, with regard especially to his judicious insistence on a certain expressive restraint and ability to unfold structures naturally over sometimes quite long stretches. Credit must also go to him for a notably well-chosen programme, with the sombre atmosphere of the Requiem giving way to a series of four motets expressive of varying, but quite often buoyant moods.

Without particularly intending to, I seem to have been covering this set of discs in reverse order, so we come at last to no. 1, an anthology of Brahms’s shorter works for choir and orchestra – with the regrettable and not obviously explicable exception of the composer’s lovely setting of Schiller’s Nänie, for which there would certainly have been space. Otherwise, the programme is an unequivocal winner. For me, not even Herreweghe can do much for the irredeemably portentous and foursquare Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), with which the disc ends; but everything else is a delight, even for a listener as sceptical as I have sometimes been about the quality of Brahms’s inspiration in this repertoire. The Gesang der Parzen, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), the Alto Rhapsody, even the early wind-accompanied Begräbnislied – all, in the wrong hands, can come across as little more than over-solemn and frankly dull settings of the likes of Goethe and Hölderlin at their most Romantically miserable. Here, however, Herreweghe and his forces show me just how wrong such penny-in-the-slot criticisms can be. This applies not least to the Schicksalslied, which in the past I have rather written off; but here I am persuaded by the beguiling beauty of Herreweghe’s orchestral introduction (the cello tone throughout the disc is to die for), and by his highly effective juxtaposition and integration of the work’s fast and slow sections. The Alto Rhapsody, meanwhile, benefits from an outstanding soloist in the Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg: warm-toned, steady, text-conscious, and oozing the kind of understated compassion which the piece ideally needs. Again here, the unforced mellowness of Herreweghe’s original instruments greatly helps the cause. The Begräbnislied, meanwhile, emerges more clearly than usual as effectively foreshadowing the great German Requiem of some six or seven years later; and the rarely performed unaccompanied motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben?, a setting of parts of the third chapter of Job, has some very fine counterpoint that holds no terrors for a choir as fine as the Collegium Vocale. If it were not for the omission of Nänie, this superb Brahms disc would surely now be the top recommendation in its chosen repertory (as far as I can tell, all the discs discussed here continue to be available separately).

Overall, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to listen to these six discs. Together, they are a real treasure trove of delights, which apart from anything else would make an ideal present for anyone remotely interested in choral music. The set is reasonably priced, costing no more than the price of three, or in some cases two premium CDs; and the slimline box has an understated handsomeness which goes well with the style of music-making it contains. The set’s only really negative aspect is the complete absence of any texts. This is not likely to hinder listeners’ enjoyment of the Beethoven or Dvořák very much, given that these two composers have set entirely standard-issue liturgy; but with Brahms, Bach and the Victoria motets it is a different matter. Maybe, though, I’m expecting too much of a retrospective issue of this kind.

Certainly no-one should make any mistake about the exalted level of its musical content. If there is such a thing, Philippe Herreweghe is an international treasure; and I for one hope that he and his colleagues will continue to work and thrive for many years to come. Not only do they give great pleasure to their listeners, but they also materially enrich and enhance their spiritual lives. What more can one ask of musicians, not least in these uncertain times?

Nigel Harris

Disc 1: Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897): Schicksalslied, Op. 54 [16:20]; Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 [11:34]; Warum ist das Licht gegeben, Op. 74 No. 1 [10:13]; Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13 [7:13]; Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89 [10:59]
with Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano), Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
rec. 18–20 July 2011, Polskie Radio, Witold Lutosławski Studio, Warsaw (from LPH 003; review)
Disc 2: Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548–1611): Lectio secunda ad matutinum [3:21];
Missa pro defunctis [24:54]; Motectum: Versa est in luctum [3:11]; Absolutio: Libera me [7:48]; Motets: O Domine Iesu Christe a6 [2:30], Domine non sum dignus a4 [2:44]
Salve Regina a6 [7:15], Vadam et circuibo civitatem [7:05]
rec. 3–5 November 2011, Notre-Dame-du-Liban, Paris (from LPH 005; review)
Disc 3: Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827): Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123 [75:22]
with Marlis Petersen (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
rec. Concertgebouw, Bruges, 16–19 November 2011 (from LPH 007)
Disc 4: Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750): Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen?, BWV 48 [13:27]; Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir, BWV 73 [12:32]; Sie werden euch in den Bann tun, BWV 44 [15:55]; Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!, BWV 109 [22:21]
Johann SCHELLE (1648–1701): Komm, Jesu, komm [4:14]
with Dorothee Mields (soprano), Damien Guillon (counter-tenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor),
Peter Kooij (bass)
rec. 31 January–2 February 2013, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem, Berlin (from LPH 012)
Discs 5-6: Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904): Requiem in B flat minor, Op. 89 [93.22]
with Ilse Eerens (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Maximilian Schmitt (tenor), Nathan Berg (bass-baritone); Antwerp Symphony Orchestra
rec. 28–30 April 2014, deSingel, Antwerp (from LPH 016; review)

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