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Posts Tagged ‘James Platt’

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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