domingo, julio 29, 2007

Bach reigns as ever

No musical season is complete without the major Johann Sebastian Bach sacred scores. This is a good year for his repertoire: Festivales Musicales has given us in two sessions the Christmas Oratorio conducted by Mario Videla, Artistic Director of both Festivales and its adjunct, the Bach Academy. And Andrés Gerszenzon has offered Bach's mightiest challenge, the "Saint Matthew Passion".

It is theoretically possible to play and sing the Christmas Oratorio in one long concert of almost three hours (after all, the "Saint Matthew" is longer than that if done without cuts), but as it really is a succession of six cantatas with the common theme of Christmastime, it makes sense to hear it in two sessions (this would never do in the Passions, whose narrative can't be interrupted). And it allows for more thorough preparation. In these "after the crisis" years Festivales hasn't been able to import Helmuth Rilling and his admirable ensembles as it used to, so Videla, a specialist in his own right, has undertaken the task of performing the big Bach scores. He has been acquiring more skill in conducting, although he is still more a stylist than a commanding chief; I commend his Christmas Oratorio as the best performance of the series of big Bach scores he has been giving the Festivales public in recent years. He still doesn't quite get that last measure of excitement of the great occasions and there were a few misadjustments, but no one went away dissatisfied.

The cantatas were written in 1734-5 and are based on the Gospel according to St Luke and St Matthew and some additions by Picander or by Bach himself. The first three cantatas deal with the birth of the Child and the visit of the shepherds. The other three, with Circumcision and the Arrival of the Magi. The Evangelist tells us the story ; there are wonderful choirs of jubilation and lovely arias. The Bach Academy instrumental ensemble boasted some splendid players, such as Pablo Saraví (concertino), Edgardo Zollhofer (cello), and Andrés Spiller (oboe and oboe d'amore) at the top of his form. The vocal soloists were well chosen: tenor Christophe Einhorn (debut) comes from Strasburg and made a positive impression as the Evangelist and in the tenor arias: a firm, clear voice, a sense of drama and fantastic fluency in florid singing. There was delicacy and style in the others: Mónica Capra (soprano), Virginia Correa Dupuy (mezzosoprano) and Víctor Torres (baritone). The Orfeón de Buenos Aires under Néstor Andrenacci and Pablo Piccinni made a valuable contribution to the total effect with fresh young voices singing with great accuracy. A note on the performing version: Videla shortened most of the aria da capos.

The venue was the Auditorio de Belgrano, also chosen by Gerszenzon for his account of the Saint Matthew Passion. This is the mightiest (and the longest) challenge in the sacred music repertoire. One could wish in dramatic terms for a tauter design but if you empathize with Bach's constant inspiration you grieve when arias are eliminated or given partially. Gerszenzon made some cuts, which kept the duration under three hours.

The conductor has shown in earlier seasons that he is a conscientious musician though not a charismatic one. He was certainly audacious in having chosen this enormous score and he managed to give us a respectful view of this great Baroque music. He has toiled for six months coaching the Choir and Orchestra of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires) of which he is their Director. The results were dignified and honorable, and it is of course laudable that university singers and players should tackle such a task, but there were weaknesses in vocal projection in the 46-strong choir and some substandard playing in the 32-piece orchestra (divided into two 16-piece organisms in those fragments where Bach specifies two orchestras). I would single out as especially good Roberto Rutkauskas (concertino), Pablo Angiletta (viola da gamba), the veteran oboist Pedro Cocchiararo and Manuel de Olaso (organ). In their only intervention the Coro Nacional de Ninos under Vilma Gorini sang well their chorale.

The vocal soloists were a mixed bag. Pablo Pollitzer as the Evangelist was stylish but small-voiced; the other tenor, Maico Hsiao, took on the arias with nice timbre and taste. Sergio Carlevaris is a big-voiced bass baritone but he sings rather wildly. Mariano Fernández Bustinza was a bland Jesus. Soprano Selene Lara sang replacing Andrea Maragno and did reasonably well. On the other hand, Verónica Cánaves (contralto) was weak and uninteresting, and she has some of the best music. Acceptable, no more, two singers of multiple bit parts, Armando Garrido and Javier Lezcano. In all, a worthwhile effort but not a great experience for the listeners; I have no doubt that it was quite positive for singers and players: to be in contact during six months with such imposing music certainly leaves a valuable trace in their hearts and minds.

The Capella Seicento led by Federico Ciancio gave us a valuable experience at the Bach Academy (Central Methodist Church): seven fine historicist players and five solo singers (who also made up the Chorus) offered the premiere of Bach's Cantata No. 18, "Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee" ("As rain and snow"), an early work from Weimar, and Buxtehude's well-known cycle of short cantatas "Membra Jesu nostri". Beautiful music well played and sung.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

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