I heard Amarcord in concert on 12/26/0 (it was live on 12/19/20), presented on the VOCES8 Live From London Christmas concert series. Amarcord is a male quintet from Germany, based at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach had been director of music. Amarcord’s concert was done at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, another church where Bach had been director of music.
The higher of the two altos in the group had a voice that was annoyingly bright, thin, and grating. This bothered me two minutes into the first piece, I was worried at the prospect of another hour plus of listening to that. I have nothing against men singing alto, but the sound should be at least a LITTLE warm and/or pleasant.
The first piece was by the Renaissance master Orlando di Lasso. It’s written with chanting in between the movements, and the chanting was the highlight, probably because the altos were singing in the lower parts of their voices.
The next piece (“Puer natus in Bethlehem” by Wolfgang Figulus) put me a bit at ease: the higher alto still sounded relentlessly bright and brassy, but it made sense in this piece, maybe because it was in German. And “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (aka “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”) was downright lovely, he sang quietly and sweetly, and yes, his voice sounds best in German.
We were back in the realm of brassy and grating for the next piece. I should mention that the two tenors and the bass had gorgeous voices, and even with the top alto often annoying me, the five singers had a wonderful blend (as much as you can blend with that voice on the top) and they’re clearly musicians of the highest order.
“Schlaf wohl, du Himmelsknabe du” was heavenly - - again, the top alto was singing quietly, which made all the difference. You’d think someone would talk with him about this. I’d never heard of the composer, Morten Schuldt-Jensen - - he’s a contemporary Danish composer and conductor, and this piece was so pretty, with some tasty but not quite crunchy harmonies. Perfect for a candlelight Advent church service.
I was kinda getting the feeling that the concert would be a seesaw between me enjoying and being annoyed by the higher alto. He won me over in his spoken outro to the piece we just heard, which he described as “a lullaby to the little Jesus child.” His German accent warmed my heart, it was so adorable.
“Weihnacht” by Erhard Mauersberger had a similar character to the previous piece, but with a bit more seriousness. Mauersberger was director of the choir at the Thomaskirche for a period in the 1960s and 70s, the piece sounded like Richard Strauss Lite.
The Amarcord performance was interrupted by a performance of the Sussex Carol by the Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir, “live” from Canterbury, conducted by David Newsholme. They were fantastic, their sound was clear, strong, and colorful, not grating or brassy at all! A welcome change.
Amarcord gave a little tribute to those English girls by singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” which had words by an Englishman and music by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had been based in Leipzig for a while. The arrangement was done by an Australian composer, Naomi Crellin. Add in the fact that Mendelssohn was Jewish and you’ve got quite a spicy stew of cultural traditions in this one piece! The arrangement was cute, though they frosted it with some pop stylings, and you can guess how I feel about that (I’m against it).
They were back on terra firma for the next piece, “Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging.” Gorgeous. They did a groovy arrangement of “Il est né le divin enfant” which sounded like something that might have been made for Take 6. You’d think I’d hate it but no, it was good clean silly fun and they sang it well. It was cute but not coy.
The last set started with “Kalado,” a Latvian folk song that reminded me a bit of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a Bulgarian women’s choir that was all the rage in the 80s. Maybe I’ll pull out my Mystere des Voix Bulgares tapes sometime soon (yes, I still have the tapes AND a boom box with which to play them). And of course they had to end with “Stille Nacht,” aka “Silent Night.” The arrangement was a little trippy for my taste, but it still made me weep. It doesn’t take much these days.
Here they are in an excerpt from the Live From London concert, a song that wasn't included in the final cut:
“Christe redemptor omnium – In festo Nativitatis Christi hymnus” by Orlando di Lasso
“Puer natus in Bethlehem” by Wolfgang Figulus
“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” by Michael Praetorius
“Gaude, gaude laetare / Freu dich, Sion, und jubilier” by Cornelius Freundt
“Schlaf wohl, du Himmelsknabe du” by Morten Schuldt-Jensen
“Weihnacht” by Erhard Mauersberger
“Joseph, liber neve myn ‘Resonet in laudibus’ (13th-century), arr.Andrew Parrott / Hugh Keyte
“Resonet in laudibus” by Orlando di Lasso
“Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier” by Johann Eccard/Johann Sebastian Bach
“In dulci jubilo” by Johann Walter
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy arr. Naomi Crellin
“Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging,” arr. Robert Pohlers
“Nu tändas tusen juleljus” by Emmy Köhler, arr. Joel Nilson
“Il est né le divin enfant,” trad. French, arr. Juan Garcia
“Kalado,” Latvian folk song, arr. Laura Jēkabsone
“Stille Nacht” by Franz Xaver Gruber arr. Matthias Zeller