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Posts Tagged ‘Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium’

Reviewers have written miles and miles of sentences about the difficulty of performing Wagner, Brahms or Bruckner, but the sad truth is that no composer has written music as difficult to pull off as that of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. The vocal parts are unsingable, the instrumental parts require virtuoso quality and the ensemble is very hard to balance. Worse: it has to sound effortless and informed by some sort of spiritual depth. Now that we are being honest about the whole thing, it is also truth that, if traditional instruments tend to make it monochrome and opaque, historic instruments live can be testingly erratic. And then there is the complexity of the music itself.

Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre are a reference in baroque music and they are almost unrivalled when one thinks of Handel operas. And this is where the problems of this evening’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (cantatas I, II, IV and VI) begin. An opera by Handel, Rameau or Gluck  was written for a group of professional singers whose expressive powers were supposed to be highlighted in the course of performances. Their interpretation was an unwritten part of the score. Without it, the music sounds incomplete. Bach, on the other hand, rarely had musicians up to the task of performing his sacred works. They were not written to flatter their personalities. They weren’t even written to flatter Bach’s own personality, but rather as a means of sharing his vision of the joys of Christian faith, uncool as this sounds today. The key element of a performance of  Bach cantata is the presence of the congregation, who would even sing in the chorales during the performances in church. This music was written to SPEAK to the audience, to involve it in the feelings and ideas conveyed by the text and the music. This evening’s performance did not inhabit this universe. It had to do with being on stage, having fun and letting it rip. If you did not get it, then it is your problem.

Almost everybody in the theatre seemed happy about it, so the fact that I did not enjoy it is actually my problem anyway. I do believe that the slow tempi traditionally used to Bach’s sacred music actually disfigured it, robbing it of the dance rhythms around which they are structured. However, overfast tempi can be disfiguring too, sometimes in a most unmusical way. When you hear an orchestra that hardly copes with hitting the notes in supersonic speeds on pitch and without any nuance and singers spitting the text without any possibility of clarity, then this cannot be the right tempo. And there is the problem of balance. Maybe it was the acoustics of the hall, but the performance was heavily bass-oriented, violins barely hearable against a wall of cellists and bassists that moved as if they would burn their instruments on stage after playing them with their teeth. This can be very exciting in Ariodante, but not here, when the feeling is very different and when it obscures a lot of powerful examples of music rhetorics and counterpoint itself.

In the chorus, this was even more problematic. The forces available involved a 3-per-part (including soloists), but for the bass, who had two singers. They were often overshadowed by the small orchestra and, due to the lack of homogeneity, balance was very poor. Again, it could be the acoustics, but one would hear the basses, one of the tenors and sometimes one of the sopranos. In the encore, a one-per-part experiment was made in a number of the 5th canatata and one should thank the conductor for avoiding this for the rest of the evening. Then there was a very exotic group of soloists.  Both sopranos lacked the purity of tone and the instrumental focus a Bach soprano is supposed to have. Both sounded ungainly and projected poorly. Lenneke Ruiten at least could produce some edge to pierce through, but then the results were acidulous. Helena Rasker is a true contralto who could caress her lines in Schlafe, mein Liebster and produce, for once in the whole evening, some Innigkeit, but was sabotaged by fast tempo and heavy-accented orchestral playing. Valerio Contaldo dispatched amazingly clear coloratura in warm tone in Frohe Hirten, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Paul Schweinester sounded a bit grainy (or it might be the acoustics), but otherwise stylish and engaged in his Evangelist duties. I leave the best for last: James Platt’s dark, resonant and flexible bass was the secret weapon in this concert. For he alone, this was worth the detour.

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The Kammerorchester Basel, a versatile ensemble tackling a wide-ranging repertoire with period practices very much in sight, has chosen Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for their European tour in the holiday season. I have to confess that I did not really understand that the performance would be split in two concerts and, therefore, will be able to speak only about the first one. Led by their concert master, Julia Schröder, the orchestra showed animation and a rhythmic vitality in the more festive numbers, usually given very fast tempi. In more pensive numbers, phrasing had some squareness and lack of purpose: Schlafe, mein liebster sounded too matter-of-fact in its purely dance-bound perspective and the sinfonia to the II Cantata could have done with a little bit more variety. The fact that the string section lacked tone did not help much in moments like that either. Furthermore, it could sound underwhelmed by the Deutscher Kammerchor, although it only had three voices per part. I also had the impressions that altos were too much in retreat, while tenors were often a little prominent,

The all-male group of soloists here chosen places an immediate interest in this performance. The velvety-toned Valer Sabadus is my first countertenor in the soprano part in this piece. Unfortunately, the most challenging numbers for that voice appear in the second half of the program. As it is, Sabadus’s sound is a bit soft-grained in middle register but smooth and round in the higher part of the ressitura. Volume too could seem restricted at times. In the alto solo, Terry Wey sounded like a fruitier and cleaner version of the young René Jacos and sang incisively and with disarming directness. Again, Schlafe, mein liebester could  be more expressive – and the fast tempo made some turns of phrase sound yodell-ish rather than graceful. Werner Güra was in excellent form both as the Evangelist and the solo tenor, his Frohe Hirten showed him at his most Wunderlich-ian. Last but not least, Matthias Goerne proved to have everything a bass in this repertoire should have: noble tone, clear diction and flexibiliy. I am really sorry I won’t be able to see the second concert.

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The Christmas Oratorio is generally put in second place to the Matthäus- and Johannes-Passionen because of its lack of theatricality and relatively less complex structure. Its expressive style is certainly more direct and puts greater emphasis on its soloists. This is probably why it is usually the less successful of many Bach vocal work collections that have gone well with only fair soloists. To make things worse, Karl Richter’s recording – which has introduced this work to many listeners since it has been released – has a legendary group of soloists, including Fritz Wunderlich, whose singing in this repertoire has never been matched by any tenor before or after him. By a large margin.

This evening, all soloists could not stand the shadow of such formidable competition. But this is hardly their fault. Now when it comes to Erwin Ortner’s faults, it is debatable if we are talking about culpa in eligendo or culpa in vigilando. He clearly sees this work as music for religious service and opts for an undramatic, very comfortably paced and phrased approach in which you can hear the choral texts without difficulty. He uses a large chorus (around 50) for a small orchestra (six first violins) in the Vienna Philharmonic’s home hall. If Mr. Ortner has made a good decision, this was the extremely smooth-toned Arnold Schoenberg, the pellucid and homogeneous sound of which never overwhelming and very transparent. His orchestra, however, is on the scrawny side (the violin solo particularly problematic, especially in what regards intonation) and, in order to cope with the choral forces, produced abrasive sounds throughout. I understand that the point was to avoid exuberance and make it straight to the point – but, if this is religious music, the point is CONVEYING the point to the congregation. In this sense, the performance was not really communicative, especially in the sixth cantata, which requires far more relief. As a matter of fact, the whole performance lacked relief, in the sense of definition, contour, of conveying a point. For instance, the only point I could see in the flaccid Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen was that it was an example of the “matten Gesänge” from the text… I don’t mean by this that every performance should sound like Diego Fasolis’s or John Eliot Gardiner’s: more considerate tempi are not incompatible with firm accents and clear rhythms but they do require a high level of polish, since you do have the time to notice how wrong things can go, and excitement cannot be used as an excuse here.

In theory, Sunhae Im is a more than plausible Bach soprano: she has very long breath, is rhythmically accurate and is pure-toned. However, judging from this evening, there is a problem of tessitura, to start with. She seems to be singing in the less congenial part of her voice most of the time, does not project very well and can sound more vinegary than bell-toned sometimes The idea of giving her some passages usually sung by the chorus proved to be ineffective. Here the Richter recording serves an example of what kind of singer one needs to perform this in a larger hall (we are talking about Gundula Janowitz, but those were different days…). In any case, my personal reference here is Claron McFadden in Gardiner’s DVD, who sings with unusual fervor and truly “speaks” her words to the audience. I myself find an inspiration in the confident and defiant way she says that God is on her side in Nur ein Wink von seiner Händen. God seemed to be unwilling to give a helping hand this evening.

Although Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s voice too is on the light side, her performance only grew in strength after an uninspired Schlafe, mein Liebster, in which she was sabotaged by the lack of atmosphere and fast tempo chosen by the conductor (which brought an almost yodeling quality to her singing) and the memory of Christa Ludwig’s immensely touching performance for Richter, in which the sense of maternal care and of awe for her savior are perfectly balanced (if she had recorded only this aria, she would still be remembered as a very important singer). In any case, Lehmkuhl’s Schließe, mein Herze was beautifully and sensitively sung, even if the violin solo was hard to digest.

Werner Güra was an extremely sweet-toned Evangelist, but lacked tone in his arias, where his flexibility was otherwise admirable. Since I’ve last saw Florian Boesch, his voice has become poorer in overtones in both ends of his range. I don’t know if he was trying to out-Klaus Mertens Klaus Mertens, but this only had the effect of making him sometimes hard to hear and quite rough-toned in his higher reaches. Other than this, he too has excellent divisions and, when not hard pressed, the tonal quality is still very pleasant.

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