Under the direction of Philip Herreweghe, acclaimed chamber choir Collegium Vocale Gent joined forces with period instrument ensemble Concerto Palatino for a concert which combined formal elegance and raw, piercing beauty. Selections from Schütz’ Psalmen Davids (1619) formed the bulk of the concert, thoughtfully programmed alongside works by Schütz’s teacher Gabrieli and colleague Praetorius. This vivid, colourful programme allowed the beautiful, clear voices of the choristers to be heard at their disciplined best.

Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra © Richard Termine
Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra
© Richard Termine

The works in question, all composed between 1590 and 1620, displayed the polychoral style of the Venetian school, where choir, vocal soloists and instruments are divided into separate groups that sing in alternation with each other, sometimes using a call-and-response style, sometimes echo effects, and sometimes a complex multi-layering of sound and text, in which instruments and voices imitate or contrast with one another. The style also utilises clear contrasts between short sections within a larger formal architecture. This grand formal coherence was mirrored in the programme order itself, in which each half of the concert followed a strict pattern of psalms alternated with instrumental selections, each culminating in a different setting of the Magnificat.

The audience was thus situated at the heart of an ordered structure which was systematically built up around us. Fred Luiten, organiser of the series of early music concerts of which this was a part, pointed out that this kind of music is, in the Netherlands, usually performed in churches, and that it was something of an experiment to perform it in the Concertgebouw, but appropriate, since the Concertgebouw was itself a temple to music. In this concert the music itself became the intangible temple, creating a sonic architecture in which the audience could experience the reordering of our own mental state through sound and praise. The only disadvantage of the Concertgebouw for this style of music was the fact that the ensembles could not be placed around the audience, but had to remain on stage at the front. In the 16th and 17th centuries, much of this style of music was written for churches where the groups of singers and instrument could be strategically placed in galleries around the building, with the audience or congregation really in the centre of the sound.

Concerto Palatino, led by cornettist Bruce Dickey and trombonist Charles Toet, provided a versatile ensemble of cornetti, period trombones and violins and continuo group, including both theorbo and archlute. The stark sound of the historic brass instruments was gloriously valiant and bright, and the agility of the cornetti was outstanding. The violins and cornetti matched one another in extremes of flexibility and dynamic control, with some breathtaking pianissimo fioriture.

In Gabrieli’s instrumental Canzon VI à 7 (1615) the trombones achieved a remarkably delicate, refined sound. In the second Gabrieli piece, Canzon Duodecimi Toni à 10 from his Sacrae Symphoniae (1597), the trombones and cornetti engaged in lovely passages of exchange and imitation, with some precise and imaginative divisions, and outstanding trills. The dominance of the cornetti in this delightfully Christmassy piece made for a warmer, sweeter timbre and transparent overall texture, through which one could really hear and enjoy the soft chamber organ as an equal contributor.

The choir adapted splendidly to singing in an unequal temperament, making the most of the wide semitones and relishing the powerful dissonances. Among the fine vocal soloists, the soprano Dorothee Mields was outstanding, with a cleanly shining tone and very sensitive use of vocal colour. Praetorius’ Magnificat (1619) offered some lovely moments, with Mields echoed by a lone member of the choir, who sang from a further corner of the stage in a graceful echo effect.

The two quartets of soloists gave a fresh and crisp account of the syllabic delivery of text in “Ach Herr, straff mich nicht in deinem Zorn” (SWV 24) and “An den Wassern zu Babel” (SWV 37). The continuo section in SWV 37 offered some very fine playing, with the sensitive use of vibrato as an ornament, and the arpeggiated chords of the archlute came through beautifully. The magical lyrical chromaticism of the opening phrases of “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (SWV 29) was hauntingly sung by the choir. The soloists lingered sensuously on the tasty dissonances in “Lobe den Herren, meine Seele” (SWV 39), while the choir sung the refrain of “Lobe den Herren” with joyous rhythmic drive and precision.

Philip Herreweghe’s direction was taut and economical, allowing the music always to speak for itself. Both in concept and execution this concert combined uncompromising adherence to formal clarity with constant awareness of the underlying emotional richness of the music. The result was a performance with power, grace and feeling.