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Showing posts with label J. S. Bach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label J. S. Bach. Show all posts

Friday, 16 June 2017

In gross, does music resemble Schumann's Davidbündlertänze ?

A first response to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Aldeburgh Festival recital

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 June

A performance-night response to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's intricate and exact steps around the theme of dance, and how movements work together, at Snape Maltings during Aldeburgh Festival on Friday 16 June 2017 at 7.30 p.m.

Lest we need repeat other comments about PLA's programming and playing, here is the #UCFF review from Aldeburgh Festival in 2014

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 18 April 2016

Bach Collegium Japan at Saffron Hall (Part II)

This is Part II of a review of Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan at Saffron Hall

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 April

This is (Part II) of a review of the concert given by Bach Collegium Japan, under its founder Masaaki Suzuki, at Saffron Hall (Saffron Walden, Essex) on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 7.30 p.m.

The last of three pieces in the evening’s all-Bach programme [it was preceded by a short Cantata, in the second half, and, in the first, by a longer one] was :

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) ~ Magnificat (in D Major¹), BWV 243

Masaaki Suzuki brought us a sharp and distinct affect to the familiar opening Sinfonia of Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243¹), the trumpets suitably clear and celebratory, and with Guy Ferber (the principal player of three) deliberately sounding slightly bright.

The momentum was nicely kept up, and one could see Robin Blaze nodding, and so showing his involvement with, and his commitment to, the work in toto – not unusually, as one can likewise see tenor James Gilchrist (@JamesTenorGilch), staying acclimatized to the ambience of Bach’s music². (As it is, though, do all too many vocal soloists just seem to rise for their aria / duo / recitative in general, and do not necessarily feel part of the whole, but maybe an adornment to it, or a needful addition (as no mortal – not just in amateur choirs – can usually match the demands of Bach’s writing) ?)

Other pleasures from the early movements were :

* Soprano Joanne Lunn adopting a position more upstage than in the Cantata in Part I (to come), and, in terms of projection, with a much better result

* Young Suzuki (Masaaki Suzuki’s (@quovadis166’s) son Masato [@eugenesuzuki]) ‘multi-tasking’, in that he often had – with the instruments arranged at right angles (rather than, as many times seen, one on top of the other) – his left hand occupied with playing a harpsichord, the right, meanwhile, with the chamber organ

* Rachel Nicholls (@raenicholls), alongside soulful tones from Masamitsu San’nomiya (on oboe, plus Suzuki Jnr on harpsichord), who (as one already had good reason to know) was very accomplished, and expressed the text seamlessly

Yet, as to seamlessness (and despite much onward energy - with bassist Frank Coppieters keenly and nimbly fretting the instrument’s bottom string), Suzuki chose not to succeed Nicholls' aria for soprano immediately with the Chorus Omnes generationes³ : rather than running it on, he instead gave it to us as if it were a distinct movement in itself, and so, by his not keeping with the sense of the verse, it ceased to be musically and syntactically dependent on the words of the preceding aria (although it appears to have been meant to be indissolubly so⁴ ?).

In truth, a minor cavil, when one well-known recording of the work (which shall remain unnamed) has the aria Quia fecit (for bass and continuo) resemble little more than a ditty with which one might imagine, as it chugs along, a cheerful and friendly whale amusing itself (partly because of how the part for double-bass is rendered) ! Of course, not the impression that BCJ gave of the movement, one can gladly report, but instead that (as with Joanne Lunn's aria, and in an ensemble full of assurance) Dominik Wörner carried himself with more bearing than in Part I, doing justice to the text. Even more true of counter-tenor Robin Blaze (who had been the soloist in the preceding Cantata - please see below), well matched with tenor Colin Balzer : a confident rendition in Et misericordia, with Blaze especially handling the chromaticism / chromatic writing very well, and with sensitive string-playing in the ripieno.

As required, the following Chorus, Fecit potentiam, was very vigorous, with a good sound from the orchestra, well enhanced by the timpani – and with a glorious moment of suspension (an effect heard again in this work - and which, later in Bach’s canon, we may know superbly used in the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 ?). We were therefore set up to hear from Balzer’s in the aria Deposuit potentes, for tenor voice : all sounding good, with, at times, organ, bassoon and bass continuo ; at others, with strings that were pert and alive.

Esurientes implevit bonis, the central aria of three that Bach gives us consecutively, brought Blaze back down from the row of members of the Chorus (who were arrayed, at the back, on podia – as when The Sixteen (@TheSixteen) had been heard at Saffron Hall). He was joined by both flautists (who moved their music-stands forward to play standing) :

The very pleasing tone and colour of their transverse instruments was part of an overall effect that was simply charming (even if, theologically, one might question Bach’s setting a text that corresponds to The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty⁵, and giving it this mood ?). More surely even than in Vergnügte Ruh (the preceding Cantata), Blaze and the instrumental soloists emphasized the light touches, and Suzuki signalled a deft bom, right at the end. And so into the aria Suscepit [Israel puerum suum], a trio of voices with the two oboes, which suspensively took us into other worlds, as Bach is adept at doing (again, he does so in the Mass in B Minor) !

A contrast was thus pointed with the closing movements for Chorus, first Sicut locutus est, with a strong, firm bass-line (supporting violins and cellos), and then - unlike with the transition to Omnes generationes (please see above) - being taken almost straight into text taken from the liturgy (the doxology of the Gloria (and not from Luke’s Gospel)).

Here, Suzuki had his forces / resources hold back - and with the contribution from the Chorus sounding, perhaps, as of the wings of hovering birds ? Then the timpanist (Thomas Holzinger) entered again – and, in a live performance such as this, seeing a percussionist making ready can, through familiarity coupled with anticipation, heighten that moment. [At this venue, it did with Colin Currie Group's all-Reich concert, but was sometimes less of an aid on the occasion when Eddie Gomez played with Britten Sinfonia...]

After a very momentary caesura, we were into the closing section of the Gloria (Sicut erat in principio), re-energizing us both through the impact of a full and dramatic conclusion, and with our recollection of the rejoiceful tone (jauchzend) with which the Magnificat had begun.

It was evident that everyone was well pleased with the culmination of the concert in the familiar guise of this joyful work, and to have had the Collegium, and Suzukis father and son, in their midst :

The former had been heartily hailed when first seen on stage, and his musicianship and musicality had been relished as heard in the latter, in whom [not least through hearing him beforehand on Radio 3's In Tune programme (@BBCInTune) - from 1:32:33 onwards in the live broadcast on 7 April 2016, and available to listen to for thirty days] a great future seems set to lie...

Bach ~ Cantata : Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170

The preceding Cantata had fallen into five movements. It alternates Arien with Rezitativen, and the first has a brief orchestral introduction, in which Masamitsu San’nomiya was now to be observed playing oboe d’amore, before we first caught Robin Blaze’s enviable vocal-tone (he had not performed in Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, the longer Cantata that constituted Part I of the concert).

Not least when he re-entered after a reprise of the initial material, Blaze put the soloists whom we had already heard in the shade – a lucid sound, and full of delight and of life. In the final line, on the word Wohnung (‘dwelling’), he gave a smile, and, after the warm, rich tutti at the close, his face could be seen looking eager at bringing us this text.

In the Rezitativ, and with organ and cello continuo, he continued clear and bright, and using tone-colour with a phrase such as Ach ! diese Schuld ist schwerlich zu verbeten (‘Oh, this guilt is hard to make atonement for !’) [where shown by underscoring]. The second, central Arie started with agreeably reedy / piping organ-notes and strings to the fore in the introduction, and, as the movement developed, the orchestra accompanied Blaze with gestures in the form of brief strokes on the strings.

As we were to hear in the Magnificat, he handled chromatic writing in the setting - e.g. of the words Und Hass (‘And hatred’) - with skill and sensitivity (as also, later, with beautifully executed coloratura). He was matched only by Masato Suzuki’s lovely organ playing : free and rhythmically flexible, according to mood and musical context. Further on, in the kernel of this Cantata, he brought forth from the organ peals and a celebratory ambience, and then we were taken straight into the closing pair of lines (beginning Ach ! ohne Zweifel ['Oh, without doubt [...]']). The tail-piece of the movement was nicely understated, and Blaze listened, quite engaged.

In the second Rezitativ, he was emphatic, confident and full, and – perhaps to a loved one in the audience ? – gave a little wink at one point. He might well have had reason to be pleased, for the whole had cohered, and was to feel ‘of a piece’ to the end :

In the closing Arie, the opening line of a five-line text – Mir ekelt mehr zu leben (‘The idea of living for longer is disgusting to me’) – is to be dwelt on by Bach. In Blaze's interpreting the sung part of the writing to us, we heard more virtuoso organ-playing from Suzuki come to fruition, and to great effect, in chirping organ figures (in an improvisatory style) that he gave to us as the movement resumed da capo.

Perhaps a work that we could more easily relate to than to Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, but certainly one that yielded a performance, built around Robin Blaze and his voice, that was both convincing, and provocative of suggesting that we might heed the theological perspective from Bach’s time and faith...


¹ As other audience members (in from Cambridge Early Music / @CambsEarlyMusic) were 'ahead of the game', and already aware that BWV 243 is (or appears to be) the revision, and transposition, of an original in E Flat Major, BWV 243a.

² E.g. when James Gilchrist splendidly returned [for Easter at King’s 2016 (@ConcertsatKings), on Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week] to give us the Evangelist in the St John Passion (BWV 245).

³ Perhaps there may have been good reasons (better than logistical ones) for not swiftly following the Aria with the Chorus. (Although it could only have been, as one recollects, to allow Rachel Nicholls to resume her place in the Chorus - and, surely, that crux could not have been insurmountable (or that resumption of place need not have been given precedence) ?)

⁴ Since (as borne out by other performances) Wikipedia asserts There is however no numbering of movements in Bach's autographs, nor is there a caesura between the third and the fourth movement : the 25th measure of the Quia respexit (where the soprano soloist sings her last note) is the first measure of the Omnes generationes movement.

(What the work’s Wikipedia page also says about how Bach set the text of the Magnificat, as a whole, is that Each verse of the canticle is assigned to one movement, except verse 48 (the third verse of the Magnificat [sc. of Chapter 1 of The Gospel According to Luke]) which begins with a soprano solo in the third movement [Quia respexit] and is concluded by the chorus in the fourth movement [Omnes generationes], i.e. :

[3rd mvt : Aria] Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent /
[4th mvt : Chorus] omnes generationes)

⁵ Though maybe the Lutheran influence always causes favouring one side of the balance ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Works from Italy on Palm Sunday : The English Concert under Harry Bicket (work in progress)

This is a review of a concert by The English Concert under Harry Bicket

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 March

This is a review (in progress) of a concert given by The English Concert under Harry Bicket, with soloists Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Nadja Zwiener (violin), Anna Devin (soprano) and Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), at Saffron Hall on Sunday 20 March at 7.30 p.m.

Part Two : From the decade following Part One, a work by a Neapolitan composer, dying in Pozzuoli in the care of Franciscans¹

(4) Antonio Vivaldi ~ Sinfonia in B Minor (Al Santo Sepolcro) (c. 1730), RV 169

(5) Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) ~ Stabat Mater (1736)

Starting in the second half of the concert, with soloists Anna Devin (soprano) and Robin Blaze (counter-tenor) already on stage (either side of the harpsichord / chamber organ), Harry Bicket and The English Concert (@EnglishConcert) employed Vivaldi’s Sinfonia ‘Al Santo Sepolcro’ as a thoughtful prelude to the last work on the programme, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (almost managing to avoid applause just after it²) :

With its initial, reverentially solemn atmosphere, it was insightful programming, and the ensemble created a great sense of space, during which, from his expression, Robin Blaze (seated stage left) could be seen to be engaging with the Sinfonia, as if ‘getting into character’. (It was clearly intended as such, for him (and Devin) as well as for us). Towards the end, it was suspenseful, before, with repeated notes, becoming more expansive : thus, it had the rise and fall of emotions, and the devotional trains of thought³, that were to come out in the Pergolesi.

We may think that we live in an era of information exchange, but (as will be mentioned below) composers in different countries were aware of each other’s works in the early eighteenth century : in the last ten years of his life, Bach arranged Pergolesi’s composition (slightly expanding its orchestral resources) as Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (BWV 1083), in which he set a German paraphrase of Psalm 51 (and it is because Bach copied out the work that we have Handel's Brockes Passion, performed at Easter at King's on Holy Saturday, and broadcast on Easter Monday).

Coming full circle, to having heard Stabat Mater for the first time in live performance as a twenty-year-old, one was struck anew by what one would now see as the Baroque character of the setting, and how it brings out those qualities in the text (even if it is near the end of the period - whether or not that is deemed to be in 1750, with the death of Bach). That said, by being over-emphatic with the work, it is easy (as many a recording did at that time) to make it sound ‘soupy’ (and so sound from another century, era, or genre), an effect that is also greatly magnified by much vibrato in the solo voices : not, of course, what one would have any reason to expect from The English Concert.

So nowadays, perhaps, this work is less often heard with a soprano and an alto (fashions change), and, although the familiar chordal-progressions of the opening may not change, Bicket brought a tautness to the playing. He went straight into the vivid strings of the next movement, with a tightness that kept a number in a row together, and make them of a piece with each other : unlike Palestrina, who set the text of the Stabat Mater as stanzas of six lines, Pergolesi has it in groups of three, which means that those first movements can have a nuance to match the content of each shorter stanza. [In the structure's formal terms, there may be twelve movements within the twenty stanzas of text, but one-half of them are taken up with the first eight stanzas.]

Once the voice of Anna Devin (soprano) had settled with that of counter-tenor Robin Blaze after the opening number⁴, we could hear together as a whole the sections through to the conclusion of the eighth stanza (Dum emisit spiritum [‘As He gave up the spirit’]). En route, in a movement that Bicket took briskly (it is marked Allegro), the tone that Pergolesi gives to the fourth stanza (which begins Quae moerebat et dolebat, an alto aria that talks of Mary’s grief, and her shuddering at her son’s pain) is the first time where we might detect an apparent mismatch between text and the tone of the setting⁵.

Immediately after Quae moerebat et dolebat, which may be what draws Pergolesi on, we have the other-worldliness of the duet Quis est homo qui non fleret, and then the word-painting of Dum emisit spiritum, with lute-notes, the affect of Devin's soprano voice, and the pianissimo strings. These words are where the first significant difference in mood comes, as the emphasis moves from - within the context of where Mary is, and what she feels - the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, and Bicket here took a very brief pause.

The next seven stanzas (or, at least, five) felt to have the different focus of a prayer to Mary, asking to identify with her grief (in stanza nine, Me sentire vim doloris [‘Let me feel the force of grief’]). From this point on, when it was not a duet, it was a solo aria for Blaze’s honeyed, if quiet, voice, which, at his best, has the clarity of the tone of a bell, and Bicket maintained the tight approach to keeping the movements ticking over.

However, at the close of these stanzas that directly speak to The Virgin (Fac me tecum plangere [‘Let me weep with you’]), he allowed a moment’s breath. The last three movements (plus Amen) were a less-pressured two-stanza solo alto aria (in which Blaze and the ensemble set a tone of reflection), and two duets, which took us through death and beyond with the personal voice that has been addressing us since Jesus’ death (in the triumphant way that, over a longer span, Messiah does).

Enthusiastic applause, and even some drumming of feet, were indicative of how keenly the audience at Saffron Hall appreciated the performance. It was a great pleasure to hear this ensemble and these soloists at Saffron Hall with such a meditative concentration on the variety of music in this short period of composition !

Moving to writing up the first half…

Part One : Venice in the early decades of the eighteenth century

1. Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) ~ Concerto for Strings and Continuo

2. Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751) ~ Oboe Concerto

3. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo

(1) Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Strings and Continuo in G Minor (c. 1725), RV 157

1. Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro

In this performance by The English Concert (@EnglishConcert), conducted by Harry Bicket, the approach to the opening piece was energetic, in the way that some of Bach is typically played (who, of course, was heavily influenced by Vivaldi’s compositions), as well as being direct and clear : perhaps we had a feeling, as in (whatever its exact origins) Johann Pachelbel's Canon for Three Violins and Basso Continuo, of being impelled, till, at the very end, we came down to quietness and the sound of the lute (William Carter).

The central, slow movement was fully expressed and unhurried. Without its being over-meditative in character, Bicket brought out a tone of thoughtfulness, which provided a vivid contrast with the Allegro, accordingly making its pace seem like that of a Presto. Again, the playing was spirited, with dynamism and attack (albeit, at times, this is writing of a somewhat anxiety-ridden kind, with the tremulous activity of its figurations), and its energy drove it through to a sure conclusion.

(2) Albinoni ~ Concerto for Oboe and Strings in D Minor (1722), Op. 9, No. 2

1. Allegro e no presto
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

The work opened with a movement in which a principal feature is what is most easily described as a swooping (or ‘snatched’) gesture, and which showed great versatility in writing for the oboe. It was welcome that oboist Katharina Spreckelsen did not play over-plangently, but, without complicating the musical line, developed expressive tone through it : an elaborated section, just before the conclusion of the Allegro e no presto, then had its proper context.

Bicket next brought out a flowing texture, which swelled in the way that Handel's familiar instrumental passage ‘The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba’ does⁶, with the Adagio being nicely and neatly played by all. As a whole with this ambience, Spreckelsen was tellingly restrained in the solo part, with unfussy trills - when Rallentando and emphasis were used, it was sparingly, and so to good effect. Winningly, we heard from her at the last, and then the movement passed to the strings for its close.

Shorter than the other movements, the Allegro gave us an Italianate style of bells, and peals of them. Spreckelsen was now using a more reedy tone, but with a dead-ahead attack, and, although the phrasing within the ensemble was balanced, it was, of course, unlike when other groups attempt such playing, being subtly done.

(3) Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo (per la Santissima Assenzione di Maria Vergine) in C Major (c. 1730), RV 581 :

1. Adagio – Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro

There is a rising Adagio introduction to the movement proper (resembling a subdued / suppressed fanfare ?), where we then heard soloist Nadja Zwiener approaching, with ease, some quite intricate violin-writing. Before returning to the opening material, and the end, we also had a real feeling of excitement in the sound of soloist and strings.

The succeeding Largo had a feeling of suspension to it. It was to be increased by the effect, in the divided strings, of brief strokes being drawn below Zwiener’s harmonizingly lyrical writing, as if with the sense of breaths, or a pulse. (It is an impression by which Vivaldi was clearly taken, and is most famously heard in Concerti Nos 1 to 4 of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, a set of twelve as his Opus 8.) In the final bars of the movement, we find ourselves returning to full orchestral sound.

The tone of the ensemble in the closing Allegro was good natured, with something akin to joie de vivre to the fore from Zwiener. However, as if we acquiesced in this mood too quickly, there were to be darker hints, not least with the second orchestra’s contributions.

We were to be brought to a very expressive passage for violin, modulating to navigate to the soul of the piece. Upon a moment’s rest per tutti, we were then led into the Concerto’s lively conclusion.

It had been a shorter instrumental first half, without the originally programmed Sinfonia by Alessandro Scarlatti (from I Dolori di Maria Vergine - so part of the Marian (and Crucifixion) theme), but very insightful as well as enjoyable, and with evidence that the audience appreciated the sensitivity and skills of soloists and ensemble and its conductor alike.


¹ Some traditions have it that the text's author was the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi.

² Though hands or bows held high do not always ensure that performers succeed in holding off applause at the end of a piece, and, if they want to run the next one together, sometimes have to make it impossible to interpolate it.

³ If, even at this modest remove of time, we sometimes have little notion, save from an indicative title, why pieces had been composed (i.e. to be performed where and / or for what purpose), and commentators and musicologists then have to conjecture, giving us their best guesses from the information available : this was as true in the first half, with another piece by Vivaldi (his Concerto for Violin in C Major, RV. 581), as with items in Bojan Čičić’s (@BojanCicic’s) recent concert programme with The Academy of Ancient Music (@AAMorchestra).

⁴ In this piece, matching may tend to be less of an issue with two female singers (although the voices can sometimes be quite exposed), but they still have to get the balance right : the hall in which they rehearsed now reacts differently, with the effect of an audience in it.

⁵ The choral version of (Josef) Haydn’s originally purely orchestral Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross was performed on Good Friday at Easter at King’s. In her programme-notes, Emma Cleobury likewise refers to occasions where – in Gottfried van Swieten’s revision of a text first used by Joseph Friebert for the same purpose as Haydn – the words 'jar with the music' :

One case that she cites (in the Haydn, in the movement Es ist vollbracht !) is of 'serene music' alongside Weh euch Bösen, / Weh euch Blinden, words of rebuke to those who ignore Christ’s sacrifice. Yet such conflicting responses to the death of Christ are ones that one is familiar with in Messiah (first performed in 1742), at once mourning Christ, having lamented his suffering on the cross, but then looking to the salvation that he has won and is offering.

⁶ Taken from Act III of Handel’s Solomon (HWV 67), it is often heard alone, and also employs oboe (being scored for two oboes and strings). The oratorio was composed in 1748 (twenty-six years later), and Handel would assuredly have known, and taken from, the Concerto. (Or one might equally have been reminded of the effect, in places, of his Water Music (HWV 348–350), which pre-dates Albinoni’s work ?)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Review by Tweet of events on the evening of 5 March 2014

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

6 March (updated, with some credits, 8 March)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 10 August 2012

Performance in proposal: Bach's Mass in B Minor

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
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10 August

I heard much of the re-broadcast Prom in which this work was given at the weekend.

There, they took a break after the Gloria, and resumed with the Credo, but this afternoon proceeded with only a few words from the presenter folowing the applause at the end of what was its first half.

But, as I queried recently in an informal chat with one of the directors of a festival (which had done likewise), it may be the organizers' and the audience's idea, after around one hour of music, to resume after tea, wine, cake or strawberries, but is that best for the work?

I think not: I think that the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) builds, and that, if people can turn up for a play and find that the performance runs for 90 minutes to 2 hours without an interval, they could and should with this work, rather than interposing the trivial things entailed in an interval.

With the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (I have a posting called
Meditations on Matthew), however, I do not think so, because it is in two Parts, and anyway runs to longer than 3 hours - having heard it without a break, I would not wish to do so again, even if that means I am faint hearted: by the standard of Bach's day, I certainly am, where complaining that a sermon was longer than 20 to 25 minutes would have been ludicrous, and the Passion itself would have had worship, too, before, between and after each Part, plus that full-length sermon.

Elsewhere, I complained that Stravinsky's Mass, when - for once - it was broadcast live (or at all), had interpolations from the seventeenth century. For me, having an interval in Bach's masterpiece is alike unnecessary.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Melvyn Tan and Bach

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
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28 July

As soon as Melvyn Tan sat at the keyboard and was satisfied with the height of the stool, he was ready to play, and began the second of the so-called English Suites (in A Minor, BWV 807) so definitely that I was straight into Bach and knew that he was, too: the fluency and confidence were there right from the first notes of the Prélude, along with tremendous energy and equal restraint and grace.

One knew that this was playing out of conviction, and the deftness with which the trills and other ornaments were executed assured of Tan's mastery of his craft, and the interpretation that he brought that the music is a living thing in and for him. The first three movements in the Suite led up to an audacious tempo in the Sarabande, in which Tan was most persuasive, and so provided a vivid contrast with what followed. Altogether, an interpretation that was evidently as well received generally as it was by me, and of which he could have been left in no doubt.

However, although I am no expert on piano-lids and Steinways, when the audience is not exactly large for a recital in a hall that holds around 400, I don’t know if it needs to be open so much: at any rate, in the rendition of this Suite and a later one, I found a brightness at times in the octaves just above Middle C, which, when there was a rich texture, meant that the chords as a whole wanted for clarity. (It could equally have been something about the acoustic itself (given fewer bodies in the hall), or not pedalling suitably (as there did not seem to be much use of the pedal).)

Otherwise, the only surprise, other than being reminded how joyous Bach is in his depth and invention, his compassion and humanity, was the seemingly hesitant cæsuræ – I can think of nothing else by which to describe them – with which, I suspect, Tan (and not the score) punctuated some movements, seemingly to break up the flow of phrases in some movements.

These little pauses had the effect of catching this listener unawares, but they did not, for all that, initially seem deliberate, more as if the pianist were unsure (Tan played them from memory) what came next - or, maybe, how to speak it in the syntax of its context. In the first Suite played, I came to accept them, whereas they frankly began to jar in the other one (No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810).

They did so partly because, in between the Suites, I had had to concentrate quite hard to follow eleven different composers’ works in Variations for Judith - I know the Bach Suites from CD (with Glenn), but I found it taxing to listen to this collection of ‘reflections’ on (or of) Bist du bei mir?, the Bach aria from the Anna Magdalena note-book (BWV 508). The title calls them variations, but they were more like versions, since there could be no sense that the variations developed from one contribution to the next (even though Tan chose an order of his own from the score).

Apart from two which Tan, in his introduction, said did not meet the stipulation when the contributors were asked to take part of 'easy' to play, what the pieces broadly seemed to have in common was that they stated the theme, although one deliberately chopped it up, putting interjections from the latter part in the right hand after utterances from the first part in the bass.

Sadly, even if I had had the score, my ability for reading one is so limited that I would not have been able to work out whose contribution was which by following it, so I was left with rather shadowy speculations as to the voice behind each little piece. Perhaps that is the vanity that the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes complains of, of trying to catch a figure such as Sir Richard Rodney Bennett in his participation - and yet what else is asking all these people to contribute for?

As Tan suggested, the collection is interesting to hear, but it necessarily lacks the coherence of something like the Diabelli Variations or the Goldbergs, as, with every one, it is a reversion to the original, not a progression, not a development. Whereas, if one of these composers had taken the aria for a ride 'properly', who knows!

As I had been taxed in this way, getting back to Bach was not, although I had expected that it would be, a restorative move, but one that simply left me aware that music was being played, but unable to listen to it (although I do also think that, of these six Suites, No. 5 was not the best one to have chosen).

If the recital were to have worked for me, maybe it would have been better like this, ending with the Variations:

1. Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (BWV 903)

2. English Suite No. 2 in A Minor (BWV 807)

3. Variations for Judith (BWV 508 + 11 others)

My rationale being that the desire to contrast Bach with compositions based on Bach's work would not have wanted a sandwich, or the two Suites, as played, merely to precede the new work(s), but that the Fantasy and Fugue would show a contrasting and more contemplative side to Bach's virtuosic writing in the Suite. Maybe it would'nt work, but this seemed the obvious 'solution' to the problem that I, at least, had faced with the programme.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Meditations on John

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29 June

This is a companion-piece to Meditations on Matthew

For the performance, I shall dwell on the positives, as the lack of separation of voices in the choral singing did not make, for me, for clarity in to-night’s St John Passion. With such a large work, not everything is likely to be totally to one’s satisfaction, and it is the overall feeling with which one is left that counts.

First, the variations in power and expression that David Shipley brought to the role of Christus made it a joy: not that joy has much part in the Passion, and sadness came to the fore, with tears, when he told his mother that the disciple whom he loved was her son, and to the disciple that she was his mother.

As to what holds the passion together, Mark Wilde’s recitative as Christus was beautifully sung, and the effect of the narration, in tandem with that of the chorales was truly thought provoking, stimulating identification, reflection, and, amongst other things, an imtimate sense of how what The Evangelist is saying brings the story close to us.

More to come...

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Who gets diagnosed - and where are the psychiatrists when this is happening? (2)

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12 April

It's Mozart's Rondo in A Minor, K. 511. In a minor key and it sounds sad, so Mozart must have been depressed at the time.

No evidence of which I am aware except the internal temperament of the piece for this proposition: he must have been depressed, because - amongst what we have - it is unusual amongst his works to be in this key / a minor key.

Could someone not, as a patron, have commissioned Mozart to write such a piece? A Duke Orsino, from Twelfth Night, would have desired to hear such a thing, and, when David played to Saul to soothe him, whose mood was he fitting?

For we do not impute to Bach, in those other-wordly passages in the Crucifixus of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) the state of mind / soul at the time of composition that the music portrays, before the sudden triumph of Et resurrexit, do we?

To be continued

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Elgar and The Apostles

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8 April

Unless I had heard excerpts when Sir Edward, through the medium of Donald Macleod, was Composer of the Week fairly recently on Radio 3, I certainly had not heard the entirety of his - what I suppose is one - oratorio The Apostles until last night.

Two of those whose views I value thought, with me, that the first part lacked a spark, and I was even - calumny though it is - prepared to blame Stephen Cleobury as conductor for not keeping it moving: we all felt that there were very loud orchestral eruptions that fitted neither with our notion of the subject-matter, nor with the audibility of The Philharmonia Chorus. (I was also not alone in thinking that, whatever the issue was with hearing Susan Bickley, it had been resolved in the second part, whereas Ailish Tynan - despite not even credited as being Mary, Jesus' mother, as well as The Angel Gabriel - was thrilling and energizing throughout.)

Although the work, as shown after the interval, did have greater pretensions to the abiding excellence of The Messiah, and certainly worked better as a narrative once the more cosmic aspects (albeit of Jesus' life, not really that of his apostles), I cannot also help feeling that Elgar, in deriving his own text, would have been better served by a Jennens.

Such a person might also have fitted in, in place of other material in this rather loose and limp first part, some demonstration of apostleship as those who, in two or threes, were sent out by Jesus to do his work. Even so, as Elgar dwells so much not only on the rebel apostle Judas, but also with Mary Magdelene - apart from the perhaps arbitrary identification of her with the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume and, in another account of quite possibly a different episode, dries his feet on her hair - beyond the role in finding the tomb empty and meeting the risen Jesus, the title of the piece has already become not fit for purpose.

Certainly, a notion that the text that Elgar has set does justice to the role of the apostles after the resurrection, and then after the ascension, is a doubtful proposition. On this, The Messiah will always be very much superior, because there is absolutely no doubt what it is about, but I do not believe that the embodied theology necessarily puts off agnostic or atheist music-lovers from appreciating the work any more than they do Bach's Matthew Passion.

Having chanced upon this last night from the Proms, and righly guessed that I was hearing it again, I want to blog a bit more, in due course, about the piece, the Radio 3 interval feature about Judas and his historicity and centrality to The Apostles, and Sir Mark Elder's interpretation...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Meditations on Matthew

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9 March

Tim Brown, whose conducting I always find infectious to watch, brought together the forces of Cambridge University Bach Ensemble and Cambridge University Chamber Choir in to-night’s performance of the perennial Lententime Bach work, which never fails to find an audience.

To-night’s, if it – as I did – needed to read what Tim had written about the piece at the front of the programme to appreciate this truth, would have seen what he said about what determines how it unfolds to be perfectly correct: much about what The Matthew Passion (BWV 244) ends up being in performance is a result of the way in which the recitative of The Evangelist is delivered.

As I noticed for the first time in this performance (though I have heard two or three others before), three times he introduces Jesus saying, with remarkable economy and concision, Du sagest's*:

(1) The first is an answer to Judas, asking whether he is the one to betray him, Bin ich's, Rabbi?.

(2) The second is when Jesus is already before the High Priest, who seeks to compel Jesus to say whether he is The Christ with the words Ich beschwöre dich bei dem lebendigen Gott, dass du uns sagest, ob du seiest Christus, der Sohn Gottes.

(3) The final one is a little further on, when, before Pilate now, he is asked Bist du der Juden König?.

Of course, the threefold repetition chimes with Peter's three denials. Just as much as Judas, Peter betrays Jesus, first by saying Ich weiss nicht, was du sagest, and then, twice, Ich kenne des Menschen nicht. And we are led straight to what is almost certainly the aria in the piece capable of most beauty, Erbarme dich, mein Gott**, which made such an impression on me when Tarkovksy used it in The Sacrifice (1986), his final film.

As to the other two denials, one is by the High Priest, who tears his clothes and accuses Jesus of blasphemy for what he says about how the Son of Man will be seen seated at the right hand of glory and coming on the clouds of Heaven; the other is by the head of the secular authorities, who seems to see through the motives of those who seek for Jesus to be crucified, but ultimately seems powerless to resist the crowd that has been worked up to bay for his blood***.

Enough on the performance for now, save to say that Stefan Kennedy (as The Evangelist) and Nicholas Mogg (as Christus) both showed a feel for delivering recitative where some of the members of the choir, who had solo spots but also a passage of recitative immediately before, appeared vocaly less comfortable, and almost as though it were a chore to be got out of the way before the aria: as becomes quite evident when seeing the work, Jesus does say remarkably little in the quite lengthy time taken before the High Priest and then Pilate, and not because he has nothing to say, but Nicholas Mogg concentrated extremely well to give a cohesive Jesus.

In the case of Stefan Kennedy's recitative, I only felt very occasionally that it was a little rushed (and that only towards the end of the piece), but that it was otherwise carefully and thoughtfully paced to best effect****: I was certainly won over by how he placed emphasis as the interpretation developed, and, with a solid but often silent Jesus, there was an interesting dynamic between them.

All in all, not least with regard to the quality of the instrumental playing from the Bach Ensemble (with a highly solid continuo line from Dan Smith on organ and Kate Aldridge on violone), a very fine Matthew Passion!


* The quotations are all taken from the text as it is given in the insert to the first version, on LP, that I owned of this work, as just an English translation was printed in the programme - I largely followed the German in that insert, but referred to the programme.

** Though this is not the only time that this verb is used, because it is in a passage of recitative that recapitulates that Jesus has been given over by Pilate to be scourged, ready for crucifixion. In the meantime, Judas has repented of his actions in accepting money to betray Jesus to the religious authorities, and there is a telling bass aria after he has thrown the money back at them and gone away and hanged himself:

Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!
Seht, das Geld, den Mörderlohn,
Wirft euch der verlorne Sohn
Zu den Füssen nieder.

*** I was reminded a little how the Tribunes in Coriolanus (most recently seen as a film directed by Ralph Fiennes, who plays the title role) also stir the crowd.

**** With a few vowel-sounds, there seemed some variance from the text that I was following, but the score being used may have adopted a different editorial policy with regard to rendering past tenses in eighteenth-century German.