domingo, abril 26, 2015

A musical trip from Bach to Mendelssohn

             On these last  twelve days I traveled musically from Johann Sebastian Bach to his great discoverer, Felix Mendelssohn.

            I started with Bach´s "St.John Passion", shorter (two hours) and more dramatic than the monumental "St Matthew". An old friend since the days I had the revelation provided by the interpretations of Fritz Lehmann (1954), Günther Ramin (the Thomaskantor of Leipzig) in 1955, and Karl Richter in 1964, I am always deeply moved by it. It´s not only due to its fantastic structure and variety, but also to the tragic sense of some arias and the savage brio of the "turbae", the brief choral interjections of the people against Jesus.

            Back in 1992, when I was Director General of La Plata´s Teatro Argentino, I programmed with Maestro Antonio Russo Bach´s Easter Oratorio plus a cantata during Holy Week and we had huge success at the Cathedrals of both La Plata and San Isidro. I´m glad that the Argentino´s current team saw fit to offer the St. John Passion twice in this special time at the big Opera House and for free.

            True, neither the Argentino´s Orchestra nor their Choir are historicist, as it is now trendy concerning Bach, but they managed to have a continuo section with theorbo, harpsichord, positive organ (a small chamber organ), bassoon, cello and viola da gamba. Of course, the orchestral strings had modern instruments and bows. The orchestration also has flutes and oboes. No trumpets, horns or timpani. The two violas d´amore of the Arioso Nº 31 and the Aria Nº32 were replaced by mellifluous violins. In several choruses the oboe d´amore was probably replaced by English horn (it has no solos). The aria Nº 58 had the proper obbligato of viola da gamba. In Nos. 62 and 63 the oboes da caccia were (also probably) replaced by English horns.

            As to the vocal soloists, I dislike the option of a countertenor for the contralto arias. If you are going to be historicist, you should use a boy contralto, but truth to tell, they are very rarely  able to convey the tragic content of the arias, so the best thing is to have a good adult contralto.

            The conductor was Diego Sánchez Haase, a Paraguayan who studied Bach with the eminent Helmuth Rilling. He gave me a rather mixed impression. On the one hand he gave evidence of knowing the score thoroughly; on the other his speeds were overfast in some arias (especially the tenor´s) and in the initial chorus,  the textures were heavy and opressive in those crucial starting minutes. But other things were right: the brio and tension of the "turbae", the easy flow of the chorales (no longer impeded by full rests at the end of phrases), the correct speeds in some other arias.

            I left implied above that for this orchestra Bach´s style isn´t easy, but they gradually grew better. The same was true of the Choir prepared by Hernán Sánchez Arteaga. Both organisms eventually arrived at a reasonable level of empathy with this great music.

            By far the best soloist was the bass-baritone Alejandro Meerapfel, who with authority, fine timbre and diction assumed the part of Jesus and sang the bass arias with admirable control and expression. Carlos Ullán managed to solve his two very difficult tenor arias with precision, although pressed by the conductor´s unreasonable speeds. Soledad de la Rosa was in a detached mood but sang cleanly. Unfortunately countertenor Pehuén Díaz Bruno was unacceptable, with little projection and many mistakes. Walter Schwarz was sonorous and true as Peter and Pilatus.

            A final paragraph on the Evangelist´s particular difficulties. He sings almost throughout in recitative telling the story or giving the cue to dialogues with Jesus, except two expressive moments on the words "geisselte" ("lashed") and "weinete" ("cried"), where he has to cope with long, intense phrases on one vowel. The writing is for high tenor and the voice must be imbued with the Passion´s tragic happenings; in the timbre a degree of whiteness is perfectly appropriate. Hugo Ponce, whose voice is thin but well projected and whose German was quite intelligible and meaningful, solved the part after some initial problems, showing command of the task.

            The Usina del Arte sometimes provides impromptu pleasures. Out of the blue came the Argentine debut of the Berliner Camerata, a distinguished cosmopolitan 11-member string ensemble led by the energetic Olga Pak. I wonder if there´s a true Berliner in the lot; some surnames: Shigabutdinova, San Quirico, Yáñez, Woo. The venue was the Chamber Hall, of warm acoustics. And it was free.

            They brought along the debut of a brilliant young pianist, Joseph Maurice-Weder, who played immaculately Mozart´s Concerto Nº 12 and Chopin´s Nº2, both in arrangements for piano and strings; rather indifferent in the first case, but negative in the second, written for full orchestra.  The pianist showed delicacy, impeccable taste and an admirable technique. The strings accompanied well.

            The concert had started with Mozart´s hit, the Serenade Nº 15, "A little Night Music", with  fast tempi and efficacious playing rather than inspired. But I was bowled over by Pak´s playing in that adolescent jewel, Mendelssohn´s Concerto for violin and strings, where she was abetted by  committed playing from her companions. It was Mendelssohn who resurrected Bach´s "St Matthew Passion", and so there´s a connection between the 15-year-old who knew his counterpoint and the greatest contrapunctic composer.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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