The a cappella male vocal ensemble Amarcord—Germany’s answer to Chanticleer—returned to La Jolla Friday (November 13) and charmed the local early music fans with their stellar musicianship and audience friendly patter. Although Amarcord is comprised of a mere five voices, they projected a laudable range of dynamics, vocal colors, and stylistic approaches.
Since the San Diego Early Music Society presented Amarcord, it was no surprise the ensemble devoted their program’s long first half to a glittering array of Italian Renaissance madrigals, brandishing the usual suspects: Giovanni Gabrieli, Orlando di Lasso, Carlo Gesualdo, Luca Marenzio, and Heinrich Schütz for good measure. Schütz was one of the few German composers of his era fortunate to study in Italy and pick up the madrigal craze first hand.
If your notion of a madrigal group is a gaggle of fresh-faced high school students intoning cute songs with “fa-la-la-la-la” refrains in a sweet and shallow one-size-fits-all tone, Amarcord quickly dispelled that stereotype. In serious madrigals such as di Lasso’s “Cantai, or plango” based on a Petrarch poem or Marenzio’s “Cosi nel mio parlar” on a poem by Dante, they cultivated a mature, warm, deftly blended timbre that caressed the music’s overlapping serpentine lines.
But for lively, bawdy madrigals such as Josquin des Prez’s “Scaramella va alla guerra” or di Lasso’s “Bonjour, et puis,” they chose a bright, nasal timbre that brought to mind paintings of Venetian carnival revelers wearing black masks with huge beaks. Body language and facial expression—especially from expressive bass Holger Krause—helped communicate the message of all the madrigal texts, which were primarily in Italian and French.
And in their verbal introductions to each set, each Amarcord singer elucidated every erotic innuendo that would have been clear to a Renaissance audience but are cloaked in metaphors not as obvious to 21st-century listeners.
Touting their Leipzig roots—the Amarcord singers were trained in the celebrated choir of that historic German city’s St. Thomas Church Choir, a musical institution forever linked to its most celebrated director, J. S. Bach—the ensemble complemented their madrigals with a set of German songs from the Romantic era by Robert Schumann, Heinrich August Marschner, and Felix Mendelssohn, composers who enlivened Leipzig’s music scene during the first half of the 19th century. Amarcord took us from Schumann’s effete but touching setting of Heinrich Heine’s poem “Die Lotusblume” to Marschner’s clever tale of a love-struck tailor’s apprentice, which they recounted with the lively antics and highly extroverted singing of a comic opera scene.
I would be remiss if I did not salute first tenor Wolfram Lattke, whose vibrant solos in the Marschner and other songs captivated the audience.
Amarcord closed with a collection of folksongs in their own more contemporary arrangements, including the American ballad “900 Miles,” a bumptious Swedish folksong, Korea’s most often performed traditional song “Arirang,” as well as songs from Latvia and Ghana.