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My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Three) – Three Part Invention

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on April 29, 2015 at 6:46 pm

After all this time we remain, I am afraid, both 1714 and in Weimar but with three cantatas that underline Bach’s enduring inventiveness.

And we start with a joyous cantata, that in many ways presages his later – and some would say – grander works.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (BWV 172) (Resound, you songs; ring out, you strings!) was written in May as part of his original contact when joining Weimar. It opens with a jubilant chorus complete with trumpets and timpani in celebration of the seligste Zeiten – blessed times – and is, in miniature, the kind of opening chorus that most people associate with Bach’s cantatas. Think, if you will permit, a shorthand version of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. Following a short recitative, the subsequent bass aria, Heilige Dreieinigkeit (Most Holy Trinity) continues this celebratory tone with its unusual scoring for trumpets and continuo only. Without another recitative, the mood becomes more contemplative in O Seelenparadies for tenor and unison strings. The simplicity of this aria is further heightened by the sense of moto perpetuo in the strings by which Bach creates the sense of God’s Spirit literally wafting through – Gottes Gesit durchwehet – with some further word painting in the second section at Auf, auf, bereite dich (Rise up, get ready). Before the final chorale, Bach writes a duet but it is effectively a quartet for soprano, alto with oboe d’amore obbligato and elaborate continuo line. The vocal and solo instrumental lines intertwine in what can only be described as an almost sensual rapture as the soprano beseeches the Holy Spirit to “waft” through her heart, with the said Spirit responding with “Ich enquicke dich, mein Kind” (I will refresh you, my child).

Reading up on this cantata, it seems that it was particularly loved by Bach – he revised it for Leipzig, making careful and suitable alterations on at least four different occasions. With its change of mood so effectively negotiated, and the contrast of the jubilant opening movement and the sensuousness of the duet, this cantata is a real gem.

With Advent being the start of the liturgical year, the opening chorus of Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) couldn’t be anything but “mighty”. And that is exactly what Bach gives us – a grand chorus in the style of a French overture. I can’t – at the moment – think of another example in his cantatas, and considering that he only employs strings and no wind, trumpets or timpani, the effect is overwhelmingly sonorous and grand. The fugue at Des Sich wundert alle Welt quite literally gives the sense of the whole world marveling.

There follows a recitative and aria for tenor. The recitative ends with some delicate arioso writing which is reflected in the aria’s gentle, dance-like gait. But it is the subsequent recitative for bass that would have had the congregation sitting up in their seats. While only ten bars in length, this is the crux of the cantata – Jesus himself knocking on the door of the penitent. And Bach underlines the significance of this with the use of pizzicato strings to underline the word klopfe. Simply but incredibly emotive. The final aria, for soprano and continuo only is again deceiving in its simplicity. Bach unwinds a beautifully expansive vocal line. And the cantata ends as grandly as it began, with an exuberant chorus

In complete contrast is the more intimate Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) originally performed on December 30 1714 and therefore Bach’s last cantata of the year. However, with its use of recorder and oboe, it some ways it feels in some ways richer and opens with a two-part sinfonia, the second part being a fugue. The oboe provides the obbligato for the first aria for bass, and its easy to hear in the scales of both the instrument and soloist the path of faith (Glaubensbahn).

In the next recitative, Bach again employs arioso, before a more contemplative aria for soprano with recorder and viola d’amore obbligato. Despite its brevity, the interplay between the vocal line and two instruments makes this aria remarkable. A perfunctory recitative leads into a closing duet for soprano and bass – Jesus and the Soul – with the ritornello in the orchestra contrasting with the imitative writing in the vocal lines.

By the end of his first year in Weimar, it must have been evident to the people of the town that in Bach they had a exceedingly creative and inventive Konzertmeister.

The Greatest Love Of All

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 27, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Review – Die Walküre, Act Three (Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Sunday 26 April)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Sieglinde – Rachel Nicholls
Die Walküre – Camilla Roberts (Gerhilde); Katherine Broderick (Helmwige); Sarah Pring (Waltraute); Emma Carrington ( Schwertleite); Meeta Raval (Ortlinde); Madeleine Shaw (Siegrune); Ceri Williams (Grimgerde); Leah-Marian Jones (Rossweisse)

Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

My original feelings of disappointment at the no-show by Evelyn Herlitzius were dismissed with the opening bars of this performance of the final act of Die Walküre. Not only was the orchestral sound rich and deep, with barking brass and an urgency in the woodwind that is often lacking, but there was a pent up energy, an almost rhythmic brutality created by Lothar Koenig’s conducting.

I often fear that – with the performance of single acts of complete operas –the lack of both emotional and musical momentum created by the preceding act will be have a detrimental impact. Not so here. From the opening bars to the final moment when Terfel glanced back, this was a performance replete with incredible performances and dripping with visceral drama.

And the vocal prowess of every performer matched that of the orchestral players, starting with an impressive band of warrior maidens. Each and every one was full-blooded in their singing but there was also something else. Perhaps it was the obvious enjoyment these eight singers conveyed singing as ensemble, but there was not only a sense of sisterly camaraderie but also a real sense of competition between these maidens. And special mention must go to Katherine Broderick, Meeta Raval, Camilla Roberts and Emma Carrington.

Superb.

As Sieglinde, Rachel Nicholls’ perhaps suffered slightly from not inheriting the Dramatic momentum of singing the first two acts. In spite of some distracting vibrato, she gave a good and solid account but I’m not sure that ultimately she has the heft for the entire role.

The last time I saw Iréne Theorin was when she stood in at the last moment for an indisposed Katarina Dalayman for the second act of Tristan und Isolde. I never got a chance to write that performance up but I have long admired her. Her performance in the Salzburg Elektra in the title role is well-worth the price of the DVD alone as Isolde last year she was superb.

But here as Brünnhilde, Theorin gave a performance of incredible – almost iconic – stature. Her interpretation was multi-faceted, resting comfortably on rock solid technique and using to the fullest her superb vocal instrument seeped extravagantly in both colour and timbre.

This Brünnhilde was not only simply magnificent, but also a woman. From the moment she stalked on stage, Sieglinde in tow, she portrayed a Brünnhilde at first in desperate flight before transitioning into a defiant yet resolute daughter to the very end. Vocally, her soprano gleamed and shone, effortlessly cutting through the orchestra. And she made every word clear and every phrase, intelligently shaped, count. And once she had despatched Siegmund’s widow to the forest, her fear of confronting her father was almost palpable.

I often think that the scene between father and daughter is nothing short of a love duet. I can’t think of another scene depicting love – in whatever form – that surpasses it. The love Wotan has for Brünnhilde and her love for him is, quite simply, the greatest love of all. And that is what makes his final farewell so heart-rending. And what inspired Wagner to one of his greatest moments in the opera.

And this love was evident her subsequent sparring with Wotan. Not only was it ever so beautifully sung, each phrase eloquently shaped, each she imbued each word and sentence with a conviction that she had ultimately done his bidding. Whether she was revealing the truth of Siegmund’s heir or imploring Wotan to guarantee a hero’s-only rescue, so impassioned was Theorin’s performance that you felt it was almost as if Wotan himself was going to be convinced.

And Bryn Terfel – first heard off-stage a before storming in in true fury, gave an equally defining performance as Wotan. From his first entrance, he took the willing audience through the entire range of emotions that this God feels – anger and fury, disappointment, anguish, love and finally resignation, not only at the loss of his daughter, but of his own ultimate fate. This was a performance on par with his incredible performance at the Proms two years ago. As with Theorin, each word was weighed and conveyed with authority; each line of Wagner’s music dug into to heighten it’s emotional impact. The despair, as well as the love he felt for his daughter washed over the entire hall as he launched into Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!.

Ranged behind the singers, and as I’ve already mentioned, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra supported the singers with great authority, playing their own critical role in weaving together Wagner’s incredible canvas. Koenig’s Wagnerian credentials are second to none already, and in this performance he demonstrated that he firmly understands the architecture and breadth of Wagner’s music, while also giving it both time to breath and revealing the smallest of details.

With singing and playing of this calibre, surely it is time for Welsh National Opera to consider – even in concert-version – a Ring cycle?

A masterclass Masterclass

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 16, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Review – Joyce DiDonato Spotlight Masterclass (Milton Court Hall, Wednesday 15 April 2015)

It’s rare to come away from a masterclass feeling that – as a non-singer – I have learned something other than the importance of the technique required by singers. But Joyce DiDonato’s masterclass, as part of her highly successful residency at the Barbican, was one of those rare occasions where you it felt less like a ‘lesson’ than watching a conversation.

And above all, it felt like a complete privilege.

I readily admit I am a massive fan of Joyce DiDonato – both of the performances themselves and the great joy and wonder that she communicates when singing. And during the masterclass, not only was that joy and wonder ever present, but both also true sense of humility at the gift she possesses as well as the hard work and hardship that singers must endure.

It must be daunting for young singers to participate in any masterclass but all four – Francesca Chiejina, Dominic Sedgwick, Alison Langer and last minute replacement Eliza Safjan – took the occasion in their stride.

With each and everyone, Joyce DiDonato achieved immediate and noticeably positive results regardless of the fact that they weren’t all in her specific Fach. For each young singer, she offered advice that was a combination of technique, character interpretation and often through creative visualization. For example, when talking of breath control with Dominic Sedgwick and Eliza Safjan. With the baritone it was how breath control would enable a smoother legato, even in the recitative of Mozart’s Hai gia vinto la causa. With Ms Safjan, it was about the relationship between dynamics and breath control that saw immediate results with Adina’s aria Prendi per me sei libero from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.

With both Ms Safjan and Alison Langer’s Gilda, DiDonato also discussed the words themselves– not only the meaning but also the context. This enabled both singers to bring their performances more to life. This was particularly evident in Langer’s Caro nome when Ms DiDonato had the soprano sing the aria as if trying to convince a skeptical friend. It brought a whole new dimension to the performance and I have to wonder how long it will be before we see Caro nome as a conversation on stage somewhere. It could be highly effective.

But above all Joyce DiDonato also discussed the importance of taking risks. And the most interesting and insightful discussion on this happened with the most memorable singer, Francesca Chiejina. This young soprano has the most amazing voice – rich, warm, even through it’s range and matched with very strong technique. Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi mi dice mai is clearly an aria close to Joyce DiDonato’s own heart and at Milton Court her discussion of the aria with Francesca paid incredible dividends. A discussion of context, the words and the vocal line that Mozart had written, revealed not only the mastery of Mozart’s ability to create a flesh and blood character through the music, but also Joyce DiDonato’s ability to reveal it to both singer and audience. In the first section of the masterclass, the two singers discussed motivation as well as the musical requirements of this aria, and DiDonato was able to coax Francesca Chiejina out of her comfort zone and transform her first rendition of the aria – impressive and solid as it was – into the kernel of Chiejina’s own interpretation of one of Mozart’s most famous heroines.

It was nothing short of revelatory and I have no doubt that Francesca Chiejina has a remarkable career ahead of her.

And a special note of thanks to the two pianists – Dylan Perez and Harry Sever. Their playing was exemplary.

Surprisingly, two hours zipped past without anyone noticing and at the end Ms DiDonato took some questions from singers in the audience. At no point during this session, did she sugar coat her answers – indeed, her honesty was refreshing. But it was the final question that summed it up for me. What’s at the centre of Joyce DiDonato’s being? What keeps her going?

Music. And with a passion, commitment and talent such as hers – and all three she shares so selflessly – I do believe music could change the world for the better.

Cara il dolce London Bach

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

Review – Adriano in Siria (Mozart 250, Britten Theatre, Tuesday 14 April 2015)

Adriano – Rowan Hellier
Emirena – Ellie Laugharne
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Filipa van Eck
Osroa – Stuart Jackson
Aquilio – Nick Pritchard

Director – Thomas Guthrie
Designer – Rhys Jarman
Lighting Designer – Katherine Williams

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

A recording of JC Bach’s Opus 3 symphonies was – together with Dittersdorf’s Doktor und Apotheker – the very first album I bought. And it was in a dusty second-hand record shop that I began my life-long love of JC Bach. From my adolescence, whenever Mozart was mentioned I would pipe up about JC Bach’s influence. Since then I have picked up whatever recordings I could find but I have to admit that Classical Opera’s staging of Adriano in Siria is the first time I have seen a complete performance of an opera by the London Bach.

I admit it, Eighteen Century opera seria might not be to everyone’s taste – the perception of endless da capo arias, the perception of a lack of characterisation and of course the perception that the stories themselves are beyond incredulous. However, anyone who has read Martha Feldman’s excellent Opera and Sovereignty will realise not only the important role opera seria played then but also – I hope – recognize that some of the values portrayed then remain relevant.

Adriano in Siria is in some ways, atypical, of the norm. By 1765, JC Bach had realised that the genre needed ‘modifying’ and therefore this opera contains few choruses and many a deliberately abridged da capo aria and therefore I am glad that Classical Opera performed the opera with barely any cuts.

Overall, the opera offers the full range of seria arias, each demonstrating that JC Bach was a skilled and sensitive opera composer. It is not surprising that Cara il dolce fiamma has proved enduringly popular – it epitomises not only Bach’s own operatic style but, I think, the genre in that period which laid the foundations for Mozart’s own adventures in opera seria.

However I do have one small gripe. At a time when you can’t throw a score of a not-performed-for-over-two-hundred-years opera without hitting a countertenor, why wasn’t there one in the cast? Personally I felt it was a shame but overall it was a valiant effort. While not all the singers were quite suited to their roles, there was no doubting their musicianship and commitment.

Disperato, in mar turbato is a fiendishly difficult opening aria for any singer, but despite a less than confident start, Erica Eloff carried off the role of Farnaspe with some brilliance. Without a doubt Cara la dolce fiamma – which so impressed Mozart – was the highlight of the event, and Ms Eloff sang it with great elegance and sensitivity, but her performances of Dopo un tuo sguardo and Son sventurato, ma pure – where she sailed through Bach’s vocal lines with ease, demonstrated that she is a talent singer with a natural affinity with music of this period. As her beloved, Ellie Laugharne didn’t sound consistently confortable with Emirena’s music, stretched at the top of her range and with uneven moments in terms of her coloratura and maintaining a smooth legato line. However, there was no doubting her sincerity in the scena Ah, come mi balza … Deh, lascia, o ciel, pietoso.

The other star-crossed lovers fared less well. Rowan Hellier’s Adriano again got off to a less than confident start with cloudy and inconsistent singing in her opening Dal labbro, che t’accende but she fared better in the declamatory Tutti nemici, e rei. Sadly, the Sabina of Filipa van Eck was not ideally cast. Again there was no doubting her technique or investment in the role but her voice – at times overly strident and strained – was not suited to JC Bach’s music.

The Osroa of Stuart Jackson was, apart from Eloff’s Farnaspe, the most characterful performance. In possession of a light yet secure tenor, he tackled both his main metaphor arias – Sprezza il furor del vento and Leon piagato a morte – with both confidence and the regal gravitas. And finally Nick Pritchard waited patiently to deliver his single aria with impassioned gusto.

The production itself – led by Thomas Guthrie – was simple, smart and very effective. It conjured a Romanesque “Siria” up perfectly with more than a nod of inspiration to a classical staging, and I particularly liked the effective use of both lighting and silhouetted backdrops. However, and this is purely personal, I would have dispensed with the origami birds and perhaps reduced the number of extra people on the stage but this aside, it seems that the Britten Theatre inspires a more than usual thoughtful approach.

As ever, Ian Page conducted the opera with instinctive authority with well-judged speeds and in the main not overly ambitious ornamentation in the da capos. Recitatives were well balanced and Page also reveled in the sound world that the London Bach, however simple, wove into the score. In 1765, clarinets would still have been something of a novelty and his use of them – providing a sense of warmth to underline the passions at play – clearly influenced Mozart in his own operas.

I know that Mozart 250 will need to mainly focus on Wolfgang Amadeus, but this was a bold inclusion. I really do hope that we will see more JC Bach – as well as other contemporaries – during the rest of their ambitious project.

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