Choral Music, Early Music Review



Getting a Handle on Handl

April 29, 2003 - Raleigh, NC:


The homonym that is Handel has been in the news of late, thanks to a string of performances of Messiah, given by the Carolina Ballet, and two readings of Israel in Egypt, in Raleigh and Winston-Salem. But an earlier master, whose name is spelled "Handl," has turned up here, too. This other one, Jakob Handl (1550-91), was born 115 years before the better-known Handel, and - to make matters even more interesting - is sometimes still listed in catalogs and reference works as Jacobus Gallus.

Fortuna, our outstanding Renaissance choir, directed by Patricia Petersen and composed of mature, adult singers, has sung music by Handl on previous occasions, and those who'd heard his work then may have been piqued by the ensemble's latest trio of concerts, which ended April 29, in Raleigh's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Handl's music formed the core of the group's program, entitled "Alliluya!," and was indeed woven throughout it. All told, six pieces by this master were sung. All were relatively short, and all bore hallmarks of outstanding mastery. Four of the six contained the word "Allelulia," sometimes in places other than at the ends of the settings. In all cases, the treatments of that word were much more repetitive and elaborate than the rest of the texts, only two of which - "Pueri Hebræorum" and "O rex Gloriæ" - are likely to have been familiar to non-church people. The other music given on this occasion - there were a total of fifteen numbers, one of which was repeated as the encore (an example of the encore living up to the meaning of that word, which is "again") - generally bracketed or overlapped the dates of the main composer featured and was - generally - stylistically similar. This may have surprised attentive listeners (or readers of the excellent short program essay, by Lisa Brown, a member of the group), given the nationalities of some of the others. The second work, for example, was by a Pole who spent part of his career in Lithuania, Waclaw z Szamotul (c.1524-c.1560), but his "In te, Domini, speravi" and his "Ego sum pastor bonus," heard later in the concert, fit well with Handl and the others, for there was basically no nationalism in music in that period - the "nation" was the church. Another Pole, Tomasz Szadek, born at about the same time as Handl (but who lived twenty years longer), was represented with a two-minute treatment of "Kyrie eleison" that was in no wise dissimilar from the then-prevailing, church-ordained norms.

The composers whose music made up the rest of the program, however, were cut from somewhat different pieces of cloth. An anonymous early 15th century Gloria may have offended clerics who wanted their charges to reflect on the message in its words; this was the longest text of the evening, but it was dispatched in the shortest time - just a minute, and encored for good measure - Petersen explained that it was a opportunity too good to pass up, repeating an entire Gloria! In this work, unlike the others, the words and musical phrases abutted one another closely, sometimes overlapping, so even with the text, and with the choir's outstanding diction, and in the second time through, too, it was hard to keep up with the singers. (In other respects, it reminded this listener of a local member of the clergy, now departed from this life, who raced through nearly everything he did, including funerals, as if he wanted - or needed - to be somewhere else.)

Things got even more interesting with the evening's remaining works - which, as noted, continued to be interspersed with compositions by Handl. From a Pole who worked in Poland and who flourished around the time Handl died, Mikolaj Zielenski, came two pieces ("In monte Oliveti" and "Hæc dies") in which the individuality of the musical creator himself can begin to be perceived. Still more impressive were two "Russian" pieces (Ukrainian, actually, so "Russian" only in that they were probably meant for the Russian Orthodox Church, and as a result are not in Latin) that, thanks to a happy quirk of felicitous programming, meshed nicely with the Duke Collegium's recent concert of music from that tradition. The first, "Raduysia," by our ubiquitous friend Anon., came from the first half of the 17th c. Next was Nikolai Diletsky's "Hvalite imia Ghospodne," surely from a bit later in the same century. Last but hardly least, the concert included a Bohemian Easter hymn, "Quatuor vocibus de resurrectione," by Jiri Rychnovsky (c.1545-1616). This was grandly broad and laden, of course, with consonant-rich language.

The program's subtitle, "Renaissance music from Eastern Europe for Passiontide and the Easter Season," stretched things a bit, but the concert was a wonderful journey back, in time, facilitated by texts or transliterations and translations, many of which were by Fortuna member Jaap Folmer. Our small cathedral seems ideally suited to the music given, and it was given, too, with evident skill and love by one of our most committed choirs. Will all those alleluias, there was perhaps a surfeit of praise on this occasion, so we'll apply some of it directly to Fortuna: bravo to its members, and to Petersen herself, brava!