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Nicol Matt & Nordic Chamber Choir

General Discussions

Matt’s Mendelssohn
Nicol Matt
Matt’s Bach

Uri Golomb wrote (April 23, 2004):
For those worried about bickering and cross-talk, let me say in advance that this message's main aim is to make a positive recommendation for a fascinating recording -- albeit not of Bach's music... But I do have to get some quick responses out of the way first.

Charles Francis wrote: < I suspect it may be the academic system that's at fault here. A spiritually uplifting art has been perverted for the purpose of competitive assessment; >
Evidence?

< for years, these poor music students must cram facts for regurgitation in examinations. >
Not the academic system I've been through. In high school, I was sometimes forced to cram facts for regurgitation; in university, I was encouraged to think for myself.

< I've seen the results: "professional" musicians reading their novels while the choir-master rehearses his amateur choir; "professional" musicians walking off in the middle a rehearsal because union rules require a tea-break; >
What has trade union policy got to do with the academic system?

< I recently acquired the 4-CD set of 201 Bach Chorales with Nicol Matt conducting the Nordic Chamber Choir and a continuo group drawn from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Admittedly, there are a lot of chorales; but in the hands of the old-school conductors, each would be a little masterpiece. However, on this recording, one can here these HIP-musicians proceeding rapidly through their laborious task. (and so on, and so on) >
I have yet to hear this set, so I cannot comment on it directly. However:
1) I assume that, once again, you define "HIP musicians" as "musicians who use period instruments and whose work I don't fancy". Would it make you feel any better if I tell you that Nicol Matt and his choir are usually accompanied by modern instruments? (in their recordings of works by Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn)

2) I have Nicol Matt's set of the complete choral works by Mendelssohn -- a set which I highly recommend to Bach lovers. The performances are often very imaginative and thoughtful, and make a very strong case for this under-rated music. Perhaps Matt's performances of the Bach chorales are not as interesting as his Mendelssohn set -- I'll reserve judgement until I hear them; but at their best, Matt and his choir are very sensitive musicians, capable of producing very communicative and engaging performances.

This set is recommended primarily for the music -- while some of it has been recorded in the past (by Philippe Herreweghe, Michel Corboz and Helmut Rilling), most of it is not available elsewhere. It contains several chorale settings and chorale cantatas which Mendlessohn composed when he was coming to grips with the SMP, and it's fascinating to observe the mixture of Bach-emulation and originally-Mendelssohnian features. Plus the music is just highly beautiful. (Some of the other fascinating pieces there: a magnifiscent Te Deum for a-capella double choir, evocative and dramatic psalm-cantatas, etc.).

I wouldn't say that all the pieces are equally interesting. But in this ten-CD set, at least 6 CDs are beautiful and engaging from beginning to end. The credit is mostly due to Mendlessohn, of course, but the set is a great tribute to Matt, his two choirs and the Reutlingen-based orchestra that accompanies them in the choral-orchestral works. Some of the works here are not performance-proof; if these musicians had been what Charles claims they are (dry-as-dust academics speed-reading through music they don't really care about), Mendelssohn's music would have sounded dull and uninspired.

But Matt and his musicians reveal real faith in, and enthusiasm for, Mendlessohn's music, performing it with care and sensitivity, and -- where appropriate -- with dramatic flair. I find it difficult to believe that they care less about Bach than they do about Mendlessohn...

Gabriel Jackson wrote (April 23, 2004):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< But Matt and his musicians reveal real faith in, and enthusiasm for, Mendlessohn's music, performing it with care and sensitivity, and -- where appropriate -- with dramatic flair. I find it difficult to believe that they care less about Bach than they do about Mendlessohn... >
I've worked with Nicol Matt and he is a musician of great skill, intelligence and integrity; Uri's comments about his Mendelssohn recordings clearly echo my reactions to his work and like him, I find it impossible that he could care less about Bach than he does about Mendelssohn (or me....!).

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 23, 2004):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< Would it make you feel any better if I tell you that Nicol Matt and his choir are usually accompanied by modern instruments? (in their recordings of works by Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn) >
Indeed. The first time I ever heard of Nicol Matt was through my visit with Rainer Selle, organist of the Schleswig-Dom (in North Germany). Selle played for me the four-hand recordings he had made with Matt (considerably younger than himself; Matt is also six years younger than I am): organ transcriptions of Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" and Ravel's "Bolero". I rushed out to buy these two Bayer discs the next day: "C-Dur & Walpurgisnacht" and "Die Orgel Tanzt". These are both on large modern organs.

Fine musician, Nicol Matt. So is Selle. I appreciate especially their fresh, creative, thoughtful approach to interpretation: and their senses of humor. These two CDs are both delightful. And that first one also includes excerpts from "Faust" spoken by an actress; and one of the wildest booklets I've ever seen in a CD from a classical company. The whole thing is a Nicol Matt concept album, credited as such.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 23, 2004):
After writing about Matt's Mendelssohn, I remembered that I actually *do* have some of his Bach. I don't have the Brilliant Classics set devoted entirely to the chorales, but I do have an 8-CD set which includes: Flamig's XO, Leusink's Ascension Oratorio, _Tilge Hoechster_ and a few other pieces, Christophers' Magnificat -- and 2-and-a-half discs of chorales with Matt and his choir (then called Nordic Chamber Choir -- it is now called the Chamber Choir of Europe, and the Mendelssohn was released under that name).

So I took these discs and listened to them. These are not the very same discs Charles has heard, but they *are* part of the same series. As I expected, Charles's characterisation (or, rather, character-assasination) was grotesuqely off-the-mark. These are introverted, sensitive, thoughtful renditions. It is true that their tempi are not very slow, but I don't see why their should be -- like Gabriel (I think it was), I fail to see why slowness should automatically be equated with profundity, and fast tempi with lack of depth. Also, they don't hold the fermatas very long. Perhaps it's these two features that raised Charles's ire.

It's interesting to compare this appraoch with Karl Richter's (who recorded many of the chorales in their original context -- within the cantatas and passions). He does most of them in quite slow tempi, and holds fermatas. For the most part, he treats them quite severely: loud and near-static dynamics, almost no variety of phrasing, and strident sonorities: deliberately statuesque. But there are exceptions: the concluding chorales of cantatas 27 and 60, for example, are constructed as wide-ranged, continuous crescendi, and with sonorites that vary from the near-ethereal to the powerfully strident.

Matt avoids both these extremes: there are no large dynamic waves (at least in what I've heard so far), but there is much local dynamic flexibility. Some degree of variety is achieved through changes of scoring: the continuo group is not always the same (I think the violone does not appear in all chorales), and some chorales are performed one-per-part (it's a pity the soloists are not named). In a few cases (for instance, "Nun lob', mein Seel', den Herren", BWV 390), there is a dialogue between soloists and choir. I suspect this is not what Bach asked for, but it works very well... The constant features are: a clear, beasonority, typical of a fine chamber choir; subtly-moulded, sensitive phrasing, creating a fine sense of ebb-and-flow; and sensitive attention to local pattenrs of tension and release. These are not strongly emphasised -- but they are subtly highlighted.

These are not, I think, ideal discs for continued listening: even when performed this well, a sequence of chorales, one after the other, is not a good concert program. But this statement is not in any way a criticism of Matt -- or of Bach. After all, Bach did not mean these chorales to be heard in sequence -- they were meant to be included in a larger context, and sound best within that context. These discs owe their existence to the modern invention of the complete CD edition: Brilliant Classics wanted a complete Bach edition, so they wanted all the chorales. Maybe it would have been better to disperse some of them among the organ works -- placing chorales next to the appropriate chorale-preludes (as Koopman has done in his Bach organ series); but this would have been difficult, since they used an existing organ cycle (by Hans Fagius).

BTW, I came to know Matt's set thanks to a review on Musicweb (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2003/Nov03/Mendelssohn_Sacred_Choral.htm).
Since then, another review has been published (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2004/Apr04/Mendelssohn_choral_brilliant.htm).
He has recently released Brahms's a-capella works (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2004/Apr04/Brahms_Choral.htm) -- a set I
look forward to hearing, and another one that Bach lovers should be curious about.

Johan van Veen wrote (April 23, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] I have all recordings of the chorales by the Nordic Chamber Choir, and on the whole I agree with your description.

I am a little less positive, I'm afraid, mainly because I prefer stronger accents, for example like Leonhardt makes the Tölzer Knabenchor sing the chorales in his recording of the St Matthew Passion.

You are right that these chorales are not intended to be listened to at a stretch. One of the nicest things of these recordings, though, is that several settings of the same chorale are sung - it gives an excellent opportunity to hear how Bach treated the same chorale differently every time.

Anyway, since there are hardly any recordings of this material I am very grateful that thanks to the Nordic Chamber Choir and Nicol Matt I am able to hear them all.

Johan van Veen wrote (April 23, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] I missed the Mendelssohn set, mainly because I just didn't know if it was really good. The use of modern instruments in a number of works is a little disappointing. I wasn't sure whether the interpretation was at least 'HIP influenced'.

Recently I have purchased another set on Brilliant Classics with the Chamber Choir of Europe, this time with the complete choral works by Brahms. It is rather good, even though I don't like some soloists and find it difficult to swallow the use of a modern concert grand in the works with piano accompaniment. But on the whole it is an excellent way to get to know these generally very fine pieces. The best are the folk song arrangements and the vocal quartets. For the sacred works, in particular the motets, I prefer recordings of the RIAS Chamber Choir or Herreweghe.

 

Professionalism etc.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 25, 2004):
"I know of one case where the first violinist led the entire orchestra off stage during a rehearsal of Beethoven's 9th while the choral movement was in full flow!"
I still fail to see what this has to do with Matt's choice of tempi (and, BTW, I don't think his tempi are very fast....) Even in this case, you described a rehearsal, not a concert or a recording session; and I'm sure this walk-out, whatever emotions it inspired in the conductor, did not lead him to change the tempo.

"You're uncomfortable when someone calls a spade a spade, then?"
So: your opinion (that these are sub-standard, incompetent performances that do not even try to do justice to teh music) is "the truth", or seeing things as they really are -- whereas my view (that these are very sensitive, varied, musical performances, by highly qualified musicians who really care about this music) is just an opinion?

If you feel the performances are rushed and ill-considered, by all means say so.. However, allegations of poor professional standards have to be backed by something more solid then a combination of "I don't like this one bit" and "I've witnessed the unprofessional/cavalier beahviour of other musicians, none of whom have taken part in this particular recording".

There is, BTW, an element of less-than-professional cost-cutting involved in several productions by Brilliant Classics, but it has nothing to do with the actual performances. Rather, it is the presentation that leaves much to be desired. This does affect the chorales, at least in part (Matt's recording of the chorales has been split into two volumes, and Charles and I don't have the same volume): there are no notes about the chorales, and no explanation about their order of presentation. There are texts, but no translations. I am sure that these matters are handled *much* better in the Hässler Bachakademie edition of the chorales: (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV250-438-Rilling.htm): I haven't seen or heard them yet, but Hanssler's general level of presentation is very satisfactory (good liner notes, full texts and translations, etc.). Don Satz gives a review of Rilling's performances in the link above. Has anyone heard both Matt and Rilling, and could thus offer a comparison?

In the Mendelssohn set I recommended, the level of presentation is mixed much thought has been given to the visual presentation (though they fail to name the pictures they reproduce); there is an excellent essay about the music by Christian Wildhagen. As in the chorales, there are full texts, but no translations. This led to one serious lapse: although both Latin and German settings of the Te Deum are sung, only the Latin text is given. In multi-movement works, there are no indications of the division into movements (which texts are set as arias, which are choruses, etc.). One disc is mistakenly labelled as being for choir and organ (it is, in fact, for choir, organ *and orchestra*). In some cases, the names of soloists are omitted. There is a biography fo the main choir (the CCE) and the conductor; but not of the orchestra, or of the Amadeus-Chor, who appear in one of the 10 discs.

Here, I think it is reasonable to assume that Brilliant Classics cut a few corners in order to be able to sell the product at super-budget price. It's a pity (would it have cost that much more to put together a better booklet?); but I prefer cost-cutting on presentation to cost-cutting on performance and recording!

They probably also cut cost by not paying the singers and players much; I am sure the musicians were not in it for the money! This is perhaps the most serious aspect of Charles's accusation: that these musicians don't care for the music, which somehow begs the question -- why bother with it at all? Why take the trouble of gathering professional singers and players from several countries (see the choir's website; http://www.chamber-choir-of-europe.de/eng/chor.htm) for intensive rehearsals and recordings of music that these musicians don't care about? Whatever my reservations about Brilliant Classics' production values, they are to be commended for entrusting the project to such an ensemble, when they could easily have hired an amateur choir. This is a choir that is not afraid of taking risks, as their choice of repertoire reveals. For musicians, the most likely reason for taking up an ambitious and risky project (such as the Mendlessohn set) is tthey love the music, have real faith in it, and want as many listeners as possible to get to know it. A second reason is to make a reputation for themselves. Much of this music is a-capella, polyphonic and demanding; it could thus enable the choir to present their highest standards.

Both these considerations would obviously lead them to demand *the most* from themselves. If the set is meant to make a case, both for themselves and for the music; it can only do so if they "put their best foot forward", as it were. As I said before, had their performances been dull and uninspired, many listeners would have come to believe that the music itself is not worth bothering with; neither Mendelssohn nor the performers would have benefited from this. The idea that they would sacrifice their own reputation on the altar of their coffee breaks is patently absurd.

Johan van Veen wrote (April 25, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb]
(1) I have been listening to some of the chorales in the Brilliant Classics recording, and in general they are not extremely fast. The assumption that the tempo of community singing should be respected seems to me a little problematic. Were these chorale harmonisations really meant to be sung by the congregation? The recording includes the closing chorales from cantatas, and these certainly were *not* sung by the congregation.

And do we know how fast - or rather slow - the congregation in Bach's time was singing?

(2) I agree as far as the presentation is concerned. What is disappointing is the amount of time between several settings of the same chorale. It would have made more sense to record them as a kind of cycle. I also would have liked to hear more stanzas in one setting. In particular when a chorale has only four lines there is hardly an opportunity to get to know them.

(3) Brilliant Classics doesn't pay the musicians that much, that is true, and although the conductors and the 'leading musicians' may not take part for money only, I am not sure everyone taking part is doing so for musical reasons only.

A player who worked with Pieter-Jan Leusink in one of his recordings for Brilliant Classics mailed me privately that he - and some colleagues - were very unhappy with the results, and didn't like to work with him again. But they really need the money, even if it isn't that much. In particular those who are free-lance can't be too choosy.

And I believe that the cantata cycle - which I am not very happy with - could have been somewhat, or even a lot, better if Brilliant Classics had given more time to rehearse and record, which they didn't in order to save money.

This may be the inevitable downside of cheap CDs.

Uri Golomb wrote (April 25, 2004):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< And I believe that the cantata cycle - which I am not very happy with - could have been somewhat, or even a lot, better if Brilliant Classics had given more time to rehearse and record, which they didn't in order to save money. >
I thought it was not just to save money, but also to make a self-imposed deadline of having everything wrapped by the end of 2000 -- not a very good reason for rushing things, I agree. (Incidentally, while I don't consider Leusink a top recommendation or even near it, and whil I agree that it shows definite signs of haste, I'm not quite as unhappy with it as Johan is, to judge by the review on his website).

< This may be the inevitable downside of cheap CDs. >
Probable, maybe, but certainly not inevitable. Brilliant Classics has issued several quite good series -- in addition to Matt's Mendlessohn series, I can mention the Haydn Piano sonatas, which, like the Mendelssohn, was recroded especially for Brilliant. (Some of their other good sets -- such as the Haydn Symponies and the Shostakovich Symphonies -- were merely purchased by Brilliant, not produced by them). I don't even think that the problematic nature of the booklets is inevitable: the booklet for the Haydn Sonatas set, for instance (written by the five participating pianists), is quite good. (Of course, since that was an instrumental set, there were no texts and translations to deal with...)

And Naxos, too, has produced some really good CDs (alongside some really bad ones -- but that's also true of some bigger companies and their more expensive CDs...)

And of course, lots of cheap CDs are re-issues, which explains their low price while in no way making low quality "inevitable".

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 25, 2004):
Uri Golomb wrote:
<< This may be the inevitable downside of cheap CDs. >>
< Probable, maybe, but certainly not inevitable. Brilliant Classics has issued several quite good series (...) And Naxos, too, has produced some really good CDs (alongside some really bad ones -- but that's also true of some bigger companies and their more expensive CDs...) And of course, lots of cheap CDs are re-issues, which explains their low price while in no way making low quality "inevitable". >
Another extraordinarly good set of cheap CDs is the cycle of most of Bach's harpsichord works played by the late Christiane Jaccottet. They are reissues from Intercord on several very inexpensive labels with terrible production values, but the musicianship is outstanding and the sound is OK.

The competing Brilliant Classics set of Bach's harpsichord music--the 12-CD boxed set that includes Menno van Delft's "Art of Fugue" and Belder's sets of inventions & fantasias, et al--is also worth having at any price, IMO: especially for that Art of Fugue performance. I have not heard the complementary Brilliant Classics box that has the WTC.

An unfortunate thing from an artist's point of view is: if the sale price is dirt for a CD or a set, the artist gets hardly anything back for the work that has been put into it; and consumers have their expectations raised of being able to get good work for free, or nearly free, and complain when it's not. It's that entitlement problem again: the expectation (of some) that expertise and hard work should properly be given away, that all information should be free, that everything should be public domain and/or voluntary public service. Artists have to eat, too; along with investing money and time in personal development and instruments and research materials and scores.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (April 25, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Artists have to eat, too; along with investing money and time in personal development and instruments and research materials and scores. >
But they're not allowed to take a break for coffee, apparently!!

Johan van Veen wrote (April 25, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman]
1) The WTC - by Leon Berben - is rather disappointing.

In the harpsichord boxes on Brilliant Classics the best are those by Belder, Dirksen and Van Asperen. I don't like Van Delft's interpretations I'm afraid. And the French Suites by Joseph Payne are awful.

2) Those considerations are perhaps less important than the satisfaction of getting the chance to make recordings at all. Neither Van Delft nor Belder have got contracts by larger record companies, so they would be nuts if they wouldn't take their chances. And if I am not mistaken, the careers of both have got a boost due to these recordings which have sold pretty well both in the Netherlands and abroad.

There have been complaints by representatives of established record companies about them recording for Brilliant Classics - whose CDs in the Netherlands are sold by a drugstore chain -, but they have only themselves to blame. They should have given them a chance, and they haven't.

Johan van Veen wrote (April 25, 2004):
[To Uri Golomb] Yes, the coming Bach year has something to do with it, but they could have started earlier. Of course, I don't know what exactly has been going on behind the scenes.

But in the end, even if taking more time would have made it likely a delay of the releases of some boxes until after 1 January 2001, the better quality would have been ample compensation for that.

The short period of time has also had its effect on the performers in that singers had to be brought in which were not planned to take part, just because the workload for the singers who were asked to participate at the was too heavy (that applies in particular to the tenor: Nico van der Meel and Marcel Beekman were brought in later).

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (April 25, 2004):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< Nico van der Meel and Marcel Beekman were brought in later). >
And bringing in these giants contributed greatly to making the whole Brilliant series worthwile. The other day I spoke to a concerto player in Leusink's project. I told him that I once heard that one of his colleagues didn;t want to be remembered of her participation in the Brilliant project. The concerto player was very clear: "it was a great experience, and I do not feel sorry for a bit". He acknowledged of course that the choir wasn't top quality, but all in all it is a project which has dispersed a lot of knowledge of Bach's marvellous cantatas to the larger public. It is excellent quality compared to the money.

Pierce Drew wrote (April 25, 2004):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< In the harpsichord boxes on Brilliant Classics the best are those by Belder, Dirksen and Van Asperen. >
I agree. I think the Belder recordings (Partitas, Fr. Overture, Italian Conc., Goldberg Vars.) in that set are actually quite good. I also think his ongoing Scarlatti project for Brilliant is, well, brilliant.

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 27, 2004):
Nicol Matt’s recordings

Charles Francis wrote:
"Given that Brilliant Classics had to fund a project to release the entire works of JS Bach (a brave and admirable goal with considerable financial risk) and given Brilliant Classics admirable consumer-oriented pricing, Nicol Matt must surely have had limited budget for his recording of the Bach chorales. [snip]"
Any assumptions regarding Matt's recording of Bach's Chorales must take into account that they were done in co-production with Bayer Records. Actually, one of the CD's of Bach Chorales is available from Bayer (of, course, for much higher price than Brilliant Classics): See: Amazon.de

Uri Golomb wrote (April 27, 2004):
Matt’s Bach - another incarnation

Enclosed is a link to a review of Matt's recording of Mozart's C minor Mass (which was originally recorded as part of a set of Mozart's complete choral music), to which Brilliant has seen fit to attach extract from his Bach chorale cycle. The reviewer here likes both performances, but questions Brilliant's decision to place them on the same CD... http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2004/Apr04/Mozart_Great_Mass.htm

 

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