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My Bach Pilgrimage – Rain, Snow, Turks & Papists

In Bach Pilgrimage, Classical Music, JS Bach on April 27, 2014 at 11:17 am

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

Alles Mit Gott (BWV 1127)
Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt (BWV 18)

Once again there seems to be some scholarly debate as to the actual date of Bach’s cantatas and if I follow Gardiner’s research amongst other, then Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) falls into the following year.

That means that of the extant – or recorded cantatas – there is one single example for 1713- Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt.

However, from this year we do have Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd – the so-called Hunting Cantata – which contains possibly one of Bach’s most performed arias, the delightful Schafe können sicher weiden.

But we also have the recently (2005) discovered Alles Mit Gott, (BWV 1127). Rediscovered by John Elliott Gardiner it was written as a Birthday Ode for his employer, Duke Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar.

Written with twelve verses in all – Gardiner records simply the first, third and twelfth stanzas with the wonderful soprano Elin Manahan – it also harks backwards to an earlier style. The soprano is simply accompanied by continuo and alternates with a ritornello by a string ensembles. It’s a beautifully crafted gem but to be honest I think three verses was quite enough for me.

Could there be a more fitting opening sinofnia to Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt? Originally it was scored just for strings but Bach added recorders when it was later performed in Leipzig, and this is the orchestra that Gardiner chooses.

A slight cheat I know to include it here but worth it.

You can almost hear the rain and snow falling in this opening sinfonia with the recorders providing the fertile earth sprouting from the resultant wet ground.

Indeed the following movement is typical of Bach’s dramatic invention in his early cantatas. After a short recitative for bass, their follows what almost amounts to a dramatic scena for tenor, bass and chorus is beautifully crafted. The soloists implore for God to save their souls from evil and between each verse the chorus interject with a rhythmically alert chorus. The plea by the chorus to be saved from des Türken and des Papsts (the Turks and the Papists) is possibly unique in Bach’s cantata output for crossing the ‘political line’.

While not in the league of his soloist/chorus movements in his later Passions, this cantata is worth listening to for this movement alone.

The following soprano aria is again reminiscent of earlier arias. It is – compared to the previous movement incredible short but there is some simple word painting at Fort mit allein, fort nur fort.

The cantata closes with a simple chorale. Perhaps any more drama would have been too much for the congregation, already whipped up into a religious fervor by the earlier movement.

In the following year, 1714, Bach would be promoted to Konzertmeister and one of his duties would be to write a cantata every month for the ducal church.

His final years in Weimar – and before his appointment in Leizig – would see Bach compose some of his most thrilling cantatas.

The Berliner Philharmoniker have launched their own record label

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Mozart’s Women – Part Two

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on April 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Review – Mozart Arias (Marina Rebeka, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Speranza Scapucci)

To listen to this Mozart recital disc immediately after that of Ms Gauvin is to enter a different world of sound and interpretation.

Marina Rebeka is a new name for me but judging from social media her star seems to be in the ascendant. It seems that she is not destined for the UK until February 2015 so before then I must try and see her in Europe. I see she is singing Mathilde in Guillaume Tell in Munich and based on this disc, I am inclined to make the trip to see her live on stage.

If Ms Gauvin’s recital was elegantly authentic, there is something ‘solid’ about this debut disc. But solidity in the reassuring and positive sense – this is definitely a ‘calling card’ of a recital disc, as Ms Rebeka literally works her way through Mozart’s heroines and anti-heroines.

It’s clear that from the outset that while this soprano still has a way to go in terms of individual characterization, vocally she has an impressive instrument – full-throated, bold but with a good degree of dynamic control and, when controlled, a thrilling top. And this voice married to strong technique and intelligent interpretation.

From Idomeneo she gives us Electra’s arias and immediately sets out the ambition of this recital disc. I would have preferred a little more ‘fury’ in O smania! O furie! but she sings D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno I tormenti with a real expansiveness. And in Estinto è Idomeneo? Tutte nel cor vi sento the closing chorus – albeit a luxury – would have assisted in giving this track greater impact.

Staying with the anti-heroines her performances of Der Hölle Rache and O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn … Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren clearly demonstrate that she has the notes if not the dramatic intent and it then feels rather dislocated somewhat to hear her sing Pamina’s Ah, Ich fühl’s. Compared to Ms Gauvin’s ‘chaster’ Pamina, I think that Ms Rebeka’s more robust daughter might have a “lived a little” and it is one of the most compelling performances in this recital.

She also gives us the key arias from Mozart’s earlier Singspiel. In Marten Aller Arten Mozart dispensed with any semblance of emotional depth and parked his coloratura tanks on the lawn of Eighteen Century Vienna. And here Ms Rebeka attacks the music with relish accompanied with similar glee by her concertante counterparts. The vocal line is controlled with the coloratura pinpoint accurate. A thrilling ride of a performance.

And it’s good to hear Kostanze’s Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose with the accompanying recitative, especially when played with such eloquence as it is here. And the ensuing aria, taken at a faster than usual lilt, conveys a sense that this is a role that Ms Rebekah is very comfortable with.

The rest of the recital is made up – rather generously – of the heroines from Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. But as a result, characterization is thin on the ground but there is some more thrilling singing.

Of the arias performed, Crudele? Ah no, mio bene! … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio again provides a vehicle to showcase the singer’s full-bodied – but well-clad technically speaking – soprano. And as a result – vocally speaking – this is the highlight of the disc while she shows enviable breath control in Elvira’s Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate.

As the Countess she delivers Porgi, amor more than elegantly – listen to the sotto voce of her opening phrase for example – and that elegance returns for Dove sono even if again, the tempo is slightly faster than I expected in the opening section.

From Così comes the war horse for any recital disc, Temerari … Come scoglio and this singer delivers it with some gusto. She flings the coloratura passages out with confidence and in this aria at least her trills are spot on.

But the real surprise for me in this recording was the playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Signora Scapucci. And surprising in a good way as considering the ‘glorious noise’ they make in Shostakovich under Petrenko – and definitely worth investigating if you haven’t already – here they play with a sensitivity, grace and sense of style that puts some other British orchestras to shame when it comes to Mozart.

As with Ms Gauvin, I heartily recommend this debut disc. Ms Rebeka might have been over-ambitious in terms of the number of characters she portrays but her commitment and thrilling singing is never in doubt.

Mozart’s Women – Part One

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on April 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

Review – Mozart Opera & Concert Arias (Karina Gauvin, Les Violons Due Roy, Bernard Labadie)

Over the last few weeks I have been throrougly enjoying two recital discs from opposite ends of the performance spectrum but both highly recommended.

The first is by Karina Gauvin, perhaps better known – to me at least – as a consummate Handelian so hearing her Mozart was – except for a random recording of Exsultate Jubilate – an almost new experience.

However, having seen her live as well as possessing both her recital and complete opera recordings, I did notice that while the technique definitely hasn’t diminished, her vocal tone – particularly in the upper part of her range – has narrowed. Yet while it might not have the robust quality of her Porpora recital for example there is a gleam to her singing that has fortunately replaced the ‘matronly’ tone of her Cleopatra in Curtis’ recording of Giulio Cesare.

And it certainly doesn’t detract from the quality of either her performance or musicianship.

Ms Gauvin is an elegant Mozartian.

Her opening aria, Aer tranquillo from Il Re Pastore is stylishly delivered, and beautifully articulated. And naturally the she cuts through the coloratura with ease.

On the strength of her Giunse al fin il momento … Deh vieni, non tardar, I would take her Countess over that of Ms Kermes any day. There is a lightness to the accompagnato with words delivered with laser-like precision that hardly prepares you for the beauty of the aria. She spins out the ensuing aria with a real purity of line, imbuing the vocal line with a beguiling sense of simplicity.

To this day, the entry of the piano obbligato in Ch’io mi scordi di te? Non temer amato bene still manages to catch me by surprise. So it’s a shame that as elegantly as it is played on this disc, I can find no trace of the soloist’s name. Perhaps it is Bernard Labadie? Who knows? But here paired with Ms Gauvin – even if the pace of the aria is somewhat sedate – I have to say that this is one of the best performances of this aria I have heard in a long time. A real gem.

It is in the second concert aria, Misera, dove son! Ah, non son io che parlo, where Ms Gauvin sounds particularly exposed but again her musical intelligence wins through with some elegant phrasing and dynamic control.

But if I had to choose one aria from this recital disc for my desert island, it would be her performance of Ach! Ich fühl’s from Die Zauberflöte. Wondrously controlled and beautifully sung, Ms Gauvin molds the winding vocal line, making her closing phrase – hanging in the air almost – one of incredible emotion.

Of her selections from Così fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito, I have to admit that her Despina – with it’s coquettishness – won me over more than her Fiordiligi and the sluggishness of Vitellia’s Non più di fiori was the only disappointing vocal track of the recital.

Throughout the recital Ms Gauvin is well supported by Les Violons Du Roy under Labadie, but considering the fire and spirit of other authentic ensembles I did wish for a bit more verve, particularly in the overtures included.

But it’s a pleasure to hear Ms Gauvin back on top form. And I hope to hear her in more Mozart in the future.

My Bach Pilgrimage – What A Difference …

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

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

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.

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