Calmus review: polish and precision

A wonderful German vocal ensemble's Shakespeare-themed concert 

by TERRY ROSS

In a classical music world full of a cappella vocal ensembles, the German group Calmus stands out.

First of all, they sound gorgeous, miraculously so. The five of them — soprano Isabel Jantschek, countertenor Sebastian Krause, tenor Tobias Pöche, baritone Ludwig Böhme, and bass Manuel Helmeke — have wonderful voices, but so do the members of Stile Antico, The Tallis Scholars, and any number of other groups. There are, after all, many, many lovely voices in the world. But Calmus sounds especially good because of their unparalleled ensemble precision. It’s not a cold and implacable precision, but a cohesion of timbres, phrasing, and breathing that can only be the result of talent and a great many very carefully planned rehearsal hours.

Calmus performed at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church. Photo: John Green.

In a program of 25 selections on a Sunday afternoon concert at Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church on April 30, sponsored by Friends of Chamber Music, these five singers showed how all that rehearsing can pay off. Their show was the smoothest, the most polished I’ve ever seen. They started, sang, and ended each piece, exactly together, without looking at one another and without anyone setting a tempo; instead they made contact with their audience. Presenting their program in sets of about five selections each, they reduced interruptions for applause until after each set, and they moved from one selection to the next without retuning, having taken a pitch for just the first number.

They also looked sharp. The sole female wore a long black dress and the four men were identically dressed in black suits with pegged pants, white shirts with spread collars, and narrow black ties: very Sixties mod. The five stood in a sensible arrangement for blending: the bass in the center, with the soprano and tenor on his right and the baritone and countertenor to his left.

Another standout feature of Calmus is its programming. Rather than merely grouping a bunch of pieces from a single historical period or similar composers or country of origin, they presented a lineup with true literary quality to go with the admirable music: All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare A Cappella. In so doing they demonstrated how potent a resource the Bard’s poetry has been for composers of choral music from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

Well, not exactly; it’s more accurate to say the 17th, the 20th, and the 21st. Of the 25 selections, the seven from the 17th century were interspersed among the 18 from the 20th and 21st, providing illuminating contrast. Five of the pieces were settings of Shakespearean sonnets; 20 others were taken from the plays, and these were presented grouped by play. The remaining piece, which opened the program, was a setting by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) of a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, probably written in 1599. The other plays represented were Twelfth Night (three settings), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (six), Cymbeline (three), Othello (two), and The Tempest (four). Texts of all the pieces were supplied, which greatly helped in appreciating how the 15 different composers responded to meanings and emotions of their texts with word painting.

A different member of the ensemble stepped forward to introduce each of the five sets in fluent and witty English. In fact these singers’ pronunciation of English — and all the pieces were in English — was exemplary. The only anomalies were such words as “tickles,” which came out as “tih-kells,” and a rather Bostonian rendition of “tomorrow” as “too-maw-roh.”

Only a very energetic choir director would be familiar with many of the composers on the program. For the rest of us, the likes of Nils Lindberg (b. 1933), Robert Applebaum (b. 1941), Nancy Wertsch (b. 1943), Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953) Matthew Harris (b. 1956), Paul Crabtree (b. 1960), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963), and Jussi Chydenius (b. 1972), all of whose music in this concert is sonorous and tonal, are mere names. Twentieth-century stalwarts Charles Wood (1866-1926), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), and John Tavener (1944-2013) are more familiar, and each contributed lovely songs. Tavener’s “Fear No More” was especially intriguing, with its many suspensions, not all of them resolved.

Elsewhere the music ranged from the quiet and lovely homophony of Finland’s Mäntyjärvi to a brilliant arrangement by baritone Böhme of the famous and anonymous “Willow Song,” originally (although not by Shakespeare) incorporated into Othello for poor Desdemona to sing. Other standouts were Chydenius’s two settings, one an energetic trio from Midsummer (“You Spotted Snakes”) and the other, more contemplative, from Cymbeline, Crabtree’s brilliant setting of Sonnet 54 (“O, How Much More”), with all five singers chanting a haunting “oh” at the beginning, a wonderful melody by John Banister (1630-1679) from The Tempest (“Full Fathom Five”), and a very jazzy piece by Applebaum, an American (and father of Stanford avant garde composer Mark Applebaum), who drew on his skill as a jazz pianist and borrowed harmonies from the Hi-Lo’s, the famous quartet from the 1950s and ’60s. And of course the four selections by the great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell were splendid.

Following along with the texts, I was freshly transported by Shakespeare’s incomparable poetry and also by the sonic beauty of superior music sung by remarkable singers. I cannot easily imagine a more satisfying vocal performance, and only a month ago I heard the superb Tallis Scholars at another Portland church.

Recommended recordings

• Calmus: http://calmus.de/en/music/discography

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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