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Nuanced Christmas Soundscape from Calmus

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Dec 16th, 2017

Sebastian Krause, Ludwig Böhome, Manuekl Helmke, Tobia Pöche, and Isabel Jantschek

The Pawling Concert Series held on the Trinity School grounds offered a Christmas concert featuring five choral singers from Leipzig, Germany. These five singers have recorded twenty albums. They were on a brief tour of the U.S. Pawling was their penultimate stop.

Singing a capella, they began with Latin, Italian, and German songs from the 14th and 15th century. The concert was held in Trinity’s All Saints Chapel. Their opening “Veni, veni Emmanuel” sung in their own arrangement, they began in the dark at the rear of the chapel, all walking with flickering candles up the aisle to the sanctuary. From the start the audience knew that this would be an extraordinary concert. Most singing quartets don’t feature a countertenor and it was a real pleasure to hear Sebastian Krause’s voice throughout the concert.

Moving to the 16th century, they sang a Praetorious “Magnificat” and “Gaudete! Christus natus est.” I was familiar with the latter song through the folk-rock version by the Scots band Steeleye Span in 1983 with Maddy Prior singing. Baritone Ludwig Böhome, whose voice carried charm and humor throughout the program, had created a new arrangement that delved into deep religious spirituality rather than the lively, extroverted, exalted excitement from Prior that had fascinated me.

The last song before Intermission was John Tavener’s “Today the Virgin,” which was pleasant yet lacked the gusto or deep spirituality of the older traditional folk songs that Calmus had sung, but tenor Tobias Pöche’s voice rendered the song memorable.

The second half began with a Canadian Huron Carol by Jean de Brébeuf arranged by Calmus and sung by  bass Manuel Helmeke, who also sings with and has done recordings with Leipziger Gewandhaus, as well as being a regular radio performer. Helmeke is a most extraordinary singer and is a thrill to hear.

They sang the original Ukranian folk song (in Ukrainian) that has been turned into the popular American song “Carol of the Bells” with its trademark bass “ding-dong” motif. They sang in French about the angles dwelling in the hills of the French countryside before launching into English with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” which was done with stylish panache added by tenor Tobias Pöche. I had noticed in the program and completely dreaded “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” but my fears were unfounded as they delivered a sophisticated, humorous version of the song.

They proceeded to sing the second most popular Christmas song in Germany, “O du fröliche,” which is based upon a Sicilian melody and in the arrangement presented moved from traditional folk song, to waltz temp, then to sprightly jazz.

The program’s closer was “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” another song that I was not exactly looking forward to hearing, but once again I was surprised by the silly, self-satirizing, jazzed up version that they delivered. Soprano Isabel Jantschek was notably wonderful in this piece, but she was notably amazing in all the songs sung.

For encore, they led the audience in all three verses of the world’s most popular German Christmas song, “Silent Night.” Calmus offered an unmatched world-class act. If you feel a tinge of remorse for not catching Calmus in Pawling, last call is at Lincoln Center on Sunday.