Calmus offers polished seasonal illumination for Candlelight Concert Society

Sun Dec 15, 2019 at 1:13 pm
Calmus performed Saturday night in Columbia for the Candlelight Concert Society. Photo: Marco Borggreve

‘Tis the season to deck the concert halls and roll out the carols. 

Amid myriad Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and Noel singalongs are programs of Christmas music from centuries gone by. An excellent example of the last type came Saturday night from the vocal quintet Calmus, presented by Candlelight Concert Society at Horowitz Performing Arts Center in Columbia.

The five singers hail from Leipzig, where a robust Christmas tradition, including a vast holiday market, dates back to the mid-Renaissance. The concert opened the same way as Calmus’s 2015 Christmas concert at Wolf Trap, with a solemn procession to the classic Advent hymn “Veni, veni Emmanuel.” Moving slowly through the auditorium while carrying lit candles, the group nicely epitomized the name of the presenter.

This opening hymn featured the best aspects of the ensemble’s sound: perfect balance in both unison and harmonic textures. When they are all singing together, no single voice dominates, with each singer finding his or her volume level in relation to all the others. 

An ingenious medley on the Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland set the tone, combining adaptations of Bach organ chorale preludes, Johann Fischer’s Missa in Contrapuncto, and settings by Johann Schein and Michael Praetorius. A Swingle Singers-like version of Bach’s BWV 659 chorale prelude featured the bass on the walking pedal line, the other male voices on the first keyboard part, singing the chorale tune in polyphonic imitation, and the soprano on the ornamented second keyboard part.

This hodgepodge concluded with the Kristallen den Fina folksong collage by Swedish composer Gunnar Eriksson, the men again walking through the audience for part of the piece. With soprano Anja Pöche left on stage, it was an admirable feat to tune the dissonant intervals of this contemporary piece while separated by varied distances.

A set of Renaissance pieces bristled with cross-relations, dissonant clashes arising from lines in polyphonic imitation. Three singers tuned these beautifully, without unduly drawing attention to them, in the splendid Coventry Carol. All five voices did the same in Thomas Tallis’s compact motet O nata lux, proper to the Feast of the Transfiguration but with textual relevance for Christmas.

Wildest of all were the shocking chromatic turns of Mirabile mysterium, a modern-sounding motet by Jacobus Gallus in a vein like the music of Gesualdo. Even here, with the harmonic ground shifting underneath the musicians’ feet, the intonation remained immaculate.

Baritone Ludwig Böhme had a pleasing solo in his own arrangement of a lesser-known German carol, the somber Maria durch ein Dornwald ging. Manuel Helmeke’s solid assurance on the bass line, so crucial throughout the program, was of vital importance in Hugo Distler’s outstanding Singet frisch und wohlgemut, cleverly woven around the older melody “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein.” Countertenor Stefan Kahle, sometimes bent out of tune at the top of his range, but had one of his most attractive moments here, in an extended duet with soprano.

John Tavener’s repetitive Today the Virgin did not stand up to comparison with the Distler, although it was sung crisply and effectively. Two drums added a pleasing rhythmic backdrop to the group’s arrangement of the Huron Carol, composed by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf. 

The second half continued to cast the net into different cultures and different parts of the world. A set of Hanukkah songs revealed the melodic likeness of one of them, Maoz Tsur, with the Lutheran chorale Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein.

The performers inserted too many commentaries between sets, but with the first such spoken instruction the group sagely asked that the audience not applaud after every piece.

The remaining pieces veered into collegiate a cappella and Manhattan Transfer territory. With idiomatic ease, the group gave light-hearted renditions of Christmas tunes from England, Ireland, Germany, Puerto Rico, and Argentina in often jazzed-up arrangements. There was even an audience singalong, the evergreen Silent Night, as an encore, and at intermission more Christmas music sung in the lobby by the Hammond High School Chamber Choir.

Candlelight Concert Society presents the Poulenc Trio in a concert with clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein 7:30 p.m. January 25.

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