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My Bach Pilgrimage – What A Difference …

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on April 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150)
Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143)

A year or so makes. After the emotional intensity of the cantatas written in Mulhausen we have a cantatas written in 1708 that seem to take a huge leap forward.

I have to admit that these cantatas as a whole didn’t grab me as much as those from 1707. Personally they didn’t have the emotional impact or scale – despite larger forces – of the cantatas of the previous year but there is a sense of experimentation.

It’s worth noting that these were the first orchestral works Bach wrote. The concerti that we all love came later and that there remains some debate as to the actual date of some of these early cantatas. Both Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150) and Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) have variously been listed as being written between 1703 and 1707, but after some research I have placed them in 1708.

Following a short sinfonia, the chromaticism of the opening bipartite chorus of Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich captures the mood of the text beautifully, especially the focus on ‘zuschanden’. And listen for the rising scale from bass to soprano in the second chorus, Leite Mich In Deiner Wahrheit.

Indeed it is the choruses in this cantata that truly stand out. And as John Elliott Gardiner points out in his brilliant book, Music In The Castle of Heaven, dance was seminal to Bach’s music and here the final chorus is a finely crafted ciacona.

Written for Easter, again Christ lag in Todesbanden opens with a short sinfonia before launching into the first chorus – a choral in the sopranos, the alto, tenor and bass lines weave around almost Italianate string writing in well-crafted counterpoint, concluding with an impressive Hallelujah ending.

A chorus definitely to get the congregation’s attention. Indeed the entire cantata is for chorus – no soloists required – but Bach deploys the forces smartly.

The second chorus, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (Death no one could subdue) scales the orchestra right back to continuo and a seductively woven vocal line above, contrasted with the vigorous string writing for the tenor chorus, Jesus Christus, Gottes sohn that follows and made even more famous by the over-orchestrated and ponderous arrangement by Stokowski.

But it is the chorus in the middle of the cantata that is most notable. Unaccompanied, Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg is in effect a motet – a furious one – with the chorale in the alto.

The final two cantatas of this period – Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) and Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143) – use an orchestra that I would imagine that most audiences most associated with Bach – woodwind, brass – in this case horns – and timpani.

BWV 143, Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele opens with a suitably exultant chorus, but its brevity demonstrates that perhaps Bach still wasn’t completely confident in terms of the large-scale choral opening movements of his later cantatas. Of the arias, it’s the tenor arias Tausendfaches Unglück, Schrecken (A Thousand misfortunes) and Jesu, Retter Deiner Herde (Jesus, Deliverer of your flock)where you hear for the first time the inventiveness that Bach would achieve in later works, especially his Passions. In the former, a delicate obbligato, in the second a distinctive bassoon continuo and the strings delivering the chorale.

As with the opening chorus, the final Hallelujah is more interesting for the hope it hold for future choruses than in itself.

Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) is the only cantata that Bach published in his lifetime and written for the annual council elections and therefore a cantata of somewhat impressive scale.

The opening chorus alternates between the necessary pomp and sections that are more reminiscent of an earlier motet style. And indeed this cantata is built on this tension of styles. The third movement is another unaccompanied movement, a fugue entitled ‘quartetto’, sandwiched between a tenor aria featuring an organ obbligato and the chorale delivered by a soprano soloist and an arioso for the bass, Tag Und Nacht Ist Dein, with its scoring for recorders and oboes. But it is the penultimate movement, the chorus Du Wollest Dem Feinde, again featuring recorders and oboes, above a rippling continuo and declamatory chorus that is the most memorable moment in this cantata, and points directly to his later works.

And naturally the cantata ends with a suitably expansive chorus – Das Neue Regiment – heralding the new council. Again alternating grander moments for full orchestra and chorus with motet-style sections, but the last word goes not to the chorus or trumpets but to the recorders.

Almost a musical wink, tt seems that Bach wasn’t quite the curmudgeon the world would like us to believe.

Venetian Soap

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 5, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Review – L’Ormindo (Wanamaker Playhouse, Friday 4 April 2014)

Ormindo – Samuel Boden
Amidas/Wind – Ed Lyon
Nerillus/Love – James Laing
Erisbe/Music – Susanna Hurrell
Mirinda – Rachel Kelly
Sicle/Lady Luck- Joélle Harvey
Eryka/Wind – Harry Nicoll
King Ariadenus – Graeme Broadbent
Osman/Destiny/Wind – Ashley Riches

Orchestra of Early Opera Company

Christian Curnyn (Director)

Director – Kasper Holten
Designs – Anja Vang Kragh
Movement – Signe Fabricius

I have to start by saying that the Wanamaker Playhouse is a beautiful gem of a theatre. Constructed entirely of wood it is a remarkable and notable addition to the London theatre and music scene.

Covent Garden doesn’t have the greatest track record for presenting the earliest operas. Steffani’s Niobe a few years ago might have been a brilliantly performed and directed production but it was all but lost on the main stage and the Linbury isn’t the best space in my opinion. So with this production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo next year at the Roundhouse, I hope that like their compatriots up the road at the Coliseum, The Royal Opera House is embarking on a major new adventure in terms of period performance outside of their usual – and mostly too expensive – haunt.

Cavalli – a proficient prolific composer – was almost a household name in Italy and judging from L’Ormindo (and Giasone) it is easy to see why.

In fact, it was hard not to see L’Ormindo as an early form of soap opera. It had all the ingredients – misplaced love, comedy, tragedy and of course an improbably outcome. The faux death of Erisbe and Ormindo was almost as unbelievable as the infamous Dallas shower scene. But instantly more memorable.

And the reason is simply because there was a fluidity to Cavalli’s musicianship and handling of the unfolding drama as well as some pretty sharp and witty characterisation. It’s not hard to see the direct link from Cavalli to Handel’s early cantatas composed in Rome and his early operas written In Italy.

Of course the main reason for the success of this production was the incredible cast that Holten had assembled.

In the casting of Samuel Boden and Ed Lyon as his two main protagonists – Ormindo and Amidas – Holten succeeded in creating two equally strong but easily delineated characters. Boden’s light and piercing tenor was incredibly fine, but for me Ed Lyon had the slight edge. He not only displayed – as he did as in Castor et Pollux and as Hippolyte at Glyndebourne – an enviable even and rich tone, sensitive to the stylistic demands of Cavalli’s music, and an amazing dynamic range, especially in the cave scene with Sicle but a real sense of comic – and otherwise – timing.

Similarly, the three women – Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly and Joélle Harvey – were well cast and well-matched. MS Harvey’s Sicle confidently negotiated the changes from gypsy to princess to Lady Luck with effortless ease. Her piercing but clean soprano, with just the right amount of vibrato was smartly scaled to the size of the venue as I am sure she would have no trouble filling a larger auditorium and the soubrette-ish nature of her Lady Luck was inspired. Susanna Hurrell – first as Music floating down from the ceiling – and then as the sexually charged Erisbe was similarly equipped with an impressive voice. Her first scene balanced the sense of comic – flaunting her costume with confident ease – with a real sense of loneliness and frustration with her current marital state. But it was her scene with Ormindo, as they believed that they were dying which raised the tragic temperature of the entire opera.

I’ve no doubt that – even for a few moments – there were a few tearful eyes in the audience.

And as the maid, Mirinda, Rachel Kelly possessed a wonderfully rich and resonant mezzo. Her ‘aria’ at the end of Act One and her acting with Nerillus in the second demonstrated both her singing and acting skills. She is definitely a singer to watch.

Of the remaining cast, a special mention must go to James Laing as Nerillus and Love. A smart actor – especially as Nerillus – he possess what I always think of as a particularly ‘English’ countertenor – there is something almost ecclesiastical about it but nonetheless bell-like and flexible. Yet as King Ariadneus, Graeme Broadbent, Harry Nicoll as Eryka and the sadly under-utilised Ashley Riches as Osman all displayed a real sense of musicianship in their smaller roles, contributing to the overall success of this production musically.

From the balcony, Christian Curnyn and his band of seven players from the Orchestra of Early Opera Company produced the crystalline and transparent playing required from this score. Despite the smaller forces, they not only attacked the music with a verve and rhythmic vitality that is often missing from larger ensembles but also found an incredible range of instrumental colours.

Holten clearly recognised that Cavalli’s L’Ormindo required no more than a light touch and was therefore particularly effective in this smaller venue. Instead his direction focused on the already in-built comedy and tragedy of the libretto and did not overuse other parts of the venue. But as in Don Giovanni and his other operas that I have seen, Holten has a sensitive eye for detail. The way the lighting was subdued in the poison scene was simple yet incredible powerful.

A nice touch was the references to the new Playhouse – and music taking its ‘equal place’ alongside Shakespeare in the opening prologue. Not as incidental as some might think as opening prologues for operas of this period often referred to contemporary events.

The costumes clearly harked back to the period of performance and played up the comedic element of the story with not so subtle skill. But it matched the nature of this opera. I have to admit that on a stage as small as this while movement was generally kept to a minimum the ending – with the dancing – suddenly and needlessly distracted.

L’Ormindo at the Wanamaker Playhouse is now sold out. A shame as I would love to have seen it again but I understand that the BBC – despite my earlier doubts – will be broadcasting it on Radio 3 in the next week or so. There are still tickets to both a ‘secret’ Classical concert as well as a Tallis drama featuring The Sixteen that I would heartily recommend.

There is no doubt that the success of this production sets a hopeful precedent for L’Orfeo but more importantly demonstrates that this new venue is perfect for early Baroque music.

My Bach Pilgrimage – Best Foot Forward

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on March 30, 2014 at 10:12 am

Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131)
Gottes Zeit is die allerbester Zeit (BWV 106)
Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196)

Sunday seems to be the best day for my Bach Pilgrimage and so my aural journey starts chronologically with the first three cantatas he wrote in 1707.

Written in Mühlhausen, Bach was just twenty-two.

As I said before, his pilgrimage won’t be an an aria-by-aria, chorale-by chorale, chorus-by-chorus account. But rather observations with the occasional highlight.

Indeed, listening to these three cantatas it feels that Bach reached his musical majority in terms of style very quickly. But having done so, his musical language didn’t stagnate but rather became ever more distilled and in terms of his religious music, spiritual.

It’s not clear why Bach wrote BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the Depths, Lord, I called to You) but from the opening chorus there is that Bach-ness to it that clearly says that this could be by no one else. I wonder what those listening to it must have thought. Of course they may have been acquainted with the choral works of the likes of Buxtehude, but the instrumental colour created by the oboe obbligato, the unexpected modulations, the expressive counterpoint have made them sit up and listen more intently.

This cantata is continuous – through-composed – although there is a real sense of modernity in the use of concertante voices in the slow-fast opening chorus and in the second arioso, not only with it’s continuing oboe obbligato but the chorale verse in the chorus. And the opening of the middle chorus – Ich harre des Herrn – reminds me of nothing more than the Gabrieli brothers of Venice but also – weirdly – of the opening of Bach’s own b minor mass.

But impressive as the choruses are, it’s the tenor aria with its lilting cello obbligato and once again its choral cantus firmus that is this cantata’s gem.

Gottes Zeit is die allerbester Zeit (BWV 106) is perhaps the best known of this early triptych and rightly the most impressive. Perhaps written for the death of his uncle, this Actus Tragicus has a real sense of theatre – as well as being theatrical – that doesn’t re-emerge until his Passions. From the start, there is a simplicity that is genius. The rich yet economical scoring of soli viola di gambas and recorders, the gently pulsing melodic line again reminds me of a later cantata – the incredibly beautiful Trauerode – in terms of the melancholic – yet at the same time profoundly joyous – mood immediately created.

In Bach’s cantatas the strength of his own religious feeling, the certainty of a life after death is ever-present and no more so than here. The chorus that follows might seem almost too jaunty for a funeral but Bach is simply confirming his own faith – death is in God’s hands and should be welcomed. The three soloists play out the drama and it seems Bach couldn’t resist one theatrical flourish – in the chorus Es ist der alte Bund with the first appearance of that famous diminished seventh drop in the melodic line that would become a hallmark in Bach and beyond. Not only is there something almost sensuous about the soprano solo but the way the movement simply fades away with her final flourish must have raised more than a few eyebrows. And indeed the same could be same of the final chorus with its off-beat emphasis and final florid fugue.

From the end of life to the beginning with Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196 (and here performed by The Purcell Quartet with soloists including the ever refined Ms Emma Kirky and Michael Chance). Perhaps written for a wedding within Bach’s own famly it follows a similar structure to BWV 106 with an opening sinfonia although the subsequently fugal chorus is of a more joyous nature although listen out for the deliberate ‘musical aside’ at und signet uns. But if there is one movement that stands out it is the duet for tenor and bass – Der Herr Segne Euch Je Mehr Und Mehr – with its concertante ripieni for the strings before Bach ends with a fittingly joyous and bustling chorus.

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