A late medieval meditation on life’s fragility, called the Dance of Death, stimulated the imagination of painters more than musicians. It was such a gloriously macabre 15th-century painting in Lübeck, Germany, by Bernt Notke—Death summoning folks from every station and walk of life—that inspired Hugo Distler’s 1934 choral work Totentanz (Dance of Death).
Ruben Valenzuela’s intrepid Bach Collegium San Diego gave a starkly beautiful account of Distler’s little known work (at least in North America) at one of the Collegium’s Bach at Noon concerts on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma. As mystical and committed to his Christian faith as his contemporary Olivier Messaien, Distler’s musical idiom hewed to an austere Teutonic neo-Baroque style as opposed to Messiaen’s lush, dense post-Romantic style that easily absorbed various global musical influences.
Totentanz is a kind of dramatic sermon, set in free verse by Distler’s fellow Lübeck educator Johannes Klöcking, in which the persona of Death calls everyone to his “dance,” and each person, e.g. emperor, bishop, townsman, peasant, etc., answers. Distler’s contribution was to compose 14 short choral motets that intersperse the dialogue, using texts by the 17th-century German mystical poet Angelus Silesius that comment theologically on mortality.
Using 8 well-balanced voices from the Bach Collegium, Valenzuela shaped these terse motets with precision and the linear clarity Distler’s style suggests, although I thought Valenzuela’s overly quiet dynamics compromised the urgency of Silesius’ texts. Valenzuela added several short improvised organ meditations that deftly developed the work’s dark tone, a positive addition to Distler’s Totentanz that has some precedent. For a second performance of Totentanz in Kassel, Germany, Distler wrote a set of flute variations to be inserted among the choral motets.
Given the authentic North German Baroque voicing of the All Souls’ Fritts-Richards organ, Valenzuela’s music added just the right timbre, and his austere, modal style fit Distler’s idiom like a glove.
Stephen Sturk, San Diego church musician and composer, read the part of Death with authority, and Erika Baier read the responses of those called to Death’s dance. Their German sounded echt, and English translations were provided in the program. The German of the Collegium singers, however, could have employed more bristling consonants.
Valenzuela opened this noontime concert with an organ solo, the Chaconne in E Minor, by Lübeck’s most famous composer, Dieterich Buxtehude.