domingo, noviembre 14, 2010

The immensity of Johann Sebastian Bach

            The greatest musical family ever was the one founded by Johann Sebastian Bach: Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann (especially the first two) were great composers in their own right. But they all pale under the unique figure of their father.  So in any season Johann Sebastian has to be present with some of his big scores, and none are more representative than the two longest ones, the Mass in B minor and "The Passion according to Saint Matthew". Within the space of a few days we had the joy of meeting them again live.  
            One of the biggest impacts of my formative years was the 1955 visit of the Thomanerchor, the legendary choir of the St Thomas Church in Leipzig of which JSB was the Kantor (the Director of Music). I couldn´t believe my young ears when I heard the incredibly well-tuned voices, the amazing discipline, the sense of deep culture that emanated from those kids that were born in the last years of the War and were under a Communist regime. Their Director was the greatly talented Günther Ramin, and they offered the St.John Passion, the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass and several motets.
            Now the Mozarteum has finally brought the Thomaners back, and with the huge Mass, at the Colón. The current crop of boys was raised in the unified Germany, but their Director, Georg Christoph Biller, took the post in 1992. The Thomaners have a characteristic: sopranos and contraltos are of course boys, but tenors and basses are all young adults which makes for a light tone that blends well with the kids.  The Choir is not big, and I like that: with 50 voices you can certainy get cleaner polyphonic lines.
            The Bach Orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus  is certainly outstanding, although they discard some historicist principles, such as gut strings. They number 27, with extraordinary players of the clarino trumpet (the high Baroque type), the horn, and woodwinds; I only felt that the concertino, Christian Johannes Funke, was too bland in his solos.
            Biller is a well-grounded musician with Bach in his bones, and his work was very noble and professional, although lacking charisma and a touch of inspiration. But with those fantastic choristers and players, I got enormous pleasure out of all the choral-symphonic parts, which dominate.  With the soloists, all making their local debuts (so was Biller) the ladies were certrainly better. I´d say that the best was contralto Britta Schwarz, especially in the Agnus Dei, a big, well-controlled sound. Soprano Gabriele Hierdeis has a small but agreeable voice, handled with care. Bass Markus Flaig had to deal with two very different arias, the "Quoniam" clearly for bass, but "Et in spiritum" more adequate for a baritone; in both he showed professionalism and managed both extremes reasonably well, but the voice is arid. I found tenor Hans Jörg Mammel close to inadequate, for his constricted voice production was certainly far from the sweetness of the Benedictus.  
            Every year Mario Videla, Artistic Director of Festivales Musicales, reserves a "plum" for himself, a recognized Bach (and Baroque) specialist. This year, at the Colón, the enormous St Matthew Passion was the choice. There was some judicious pruning: Nos. 34, 52, 62, 73 and 76 were shortened, and in the latter, the intermediate Chorus was eliminated.
The Orfeón de Buenos Aires (led by Néstor Andrenacci and Pablo Piccinni) is too big (about a hundred) for Bach; the Children´s Choir (ad-hoc) numered 54, in proportion; they only sing a chorale.  This mass of sound  conspired against clarity and overwhelmed the Camerata Bariloche, even augmented (21 added to 17) because the composer asks for two orchestras .
            The Passion has big choruses at the start and end of the First Part and the culmination of the Second Part, but also expressive chorales and in complete contrast, the "turbae", the small narrative interventions of the people, sometimes quite dramatic. And of course several soloists, not only for the Evangelist and the main characters of the narrative (Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilatus, etc.) but also for the interspersed ariosos and arias for soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass, generally quite difficult and based on pietistic texts by Picander. The best artists were Víctor Torres (Pilatus and bass arias), Christophe Einhorn (Evangelist),Virginia Correa Dupuy (mezzo) and Alejandro Meerapfel (Judas, Peter, other bass aria). Also in a good level Sebastian Brouwer (tenor) and Soledad de la Rosa (soprano). Below their best Sergio Carlevaris (Jesus) and Martín Oro (countertenor).
            There were some outstanding instrumental soloists: flutist Claudio Barile, oboist Andrés Spiller, concertino Pablo Saraví and gambist Juan Manuel Quintana; good continuo players; and reasonable substitution of the oboes da caccia by English horns. The playing was generally satisfactory, without historicist pretentions in the strings.  Videla´s work had some controversial points, particularly the exaggerated speed of the big choirs of the First Part giving a rushed feeling (with only a tiny cut, his First Part clocked at 1 h 3´ , whilst Münchinger´s recording lasts 1 h 25´).  I liked the continuity of his chorales but found some rhythmical instability in the big pieces. Several arias were also too fast. Even accounting for the cuts, his St Matthew lasted close to 2h 30´ ; a full version with tempi that allow the music to breathe should take about 3 hours.   Not all trends are good…
For Buenos Aires Herald

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