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(Vibrato)

In Baroque, BBC Proms, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on August 2, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Review – Partitas & Sonatas for Violin (BBC Proms, Friday 31 August & Saturday 1 August 2015)

Alina Ibragimova (Violin)

Vibrato or not? It’s a debate that has been going on since the authentic performance movement began and continues to be discussed – thankfully in a civilized manner – as well as to inform performance. Indeed, Roger Norrington, an early exponent of authentic performance has performed Mahler without vibrato. Leopold Mozart condemned it, yet Martin Agricola was writing about its ability help convey emotion in the 1520s.

It was also interesting on the first night of this two-event recital to hear that this was the first time that the BBC had programmed the solo violin partitas and sonatas in their entirety at the Proms, and that they had not already done so at Cadogan Hall. These performances also form part of a triptych with solo recitals by András Schiff and Yo-Yo Ma later in the season.

Any reservations that Alina Ibragimova might be swamped in such a gargantuan space were immediately dispelled with the first flourish of the first Partita in g minor. And despite standing right at the front of the stage, Ms Ibragimova created an immediate sense of hushed intimacy on both evenings.

The sound she produced was of the purist clarity and enabled the multiple voices written into Bach’s music – and beautifully weighted and balanced in every movement – to be clearly heard. For example in the second movement Fuga of the g minor partita, the opening movement of the C Major Partita or the simply glorious Andante from the Partita in a minor. Personally speaking, this is one of the most sublime movements written by Bach.

A momentary lapse in the Partita in d minor on the second evening resulted in a compelling – almost driven – performance of the entire work with performance of the closing Ciaconna of incredibly intensity.

But Ms Ibragimova also demonstrated incredible virtuosity. The vivacity and aplomb of the opening E Major Partita – which he later transcribed for organ and orchestra – and the closing of the A minor with its echo motif for example.

Personally, I am ‘pro vibrato’. The added dimension it gives to music – especially works such as these – even when doled out in the smallest amounts can invest the music with added emotional intensity. There is no denying Alina Ibragimova’s virtuosity, musicianship and clear love for these works have ensured that the ambition to perform the sonatas and partitas will be memorable. And yet, as I listened to her performances – and thought of those performances I own which I truly cherish such as those of Isabelle Faust, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Arthur Grumiaux – I have to admit that I wonted for even the smallest hint or suggestion of vibrato.

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.

My Bach Pilgrimage – Best Foot Forward

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

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

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.

JS Bach – A Personal Pilgrimage

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on March 15, 2014 at 10:20 am

A series of happy coincidences has prompted me to undertake what amounts to a personal pilgrimage.

The first was the fiftieth anniversary of the Monteverdi Chorus. As with many other people, this magnificent ensemble – together with the English Baroque Soloists – has played a seminal role in my own musical life. Their numerous recordings from Bach to Brahms, and their live performances have been a constant in my life but just as importantly so has their passion and enthusiasm for classical music. They were – if I am not mistaken – one of the first ensembles to cock a finger at the major recording labels and set out on their own. And where they have gone, others are starting to follow, determined not to be diminished by the selfishness of labels and there obsession with mediocrity and the bottom line.

Secondly – but related – was the recent release of their Easter Oratorio and Actus Tragicus. Suffice it to say at this stage – as the Actus Tragicus will indeed be one of the first cantatas to feature in my pilgrimage – that these are joyous recordings.

And third is that this is my 150th blog entry and one of my earliest blog entries was all about the majesty Bach’s cantatas. In both school and college I have both sung and played various of his cantatas and oratorios. Repeated listening hasn’t dampened by enthusiasm or sense of awe for any of them and it always amazes me that about two fifth are still missing.

Therefore I am, for however long it takes, going to embark on my own Bach pilgrimage. I will listen to every cantata as recorded by this eminent ensemble but of course there will be occasions when I will listen to performances outside of Gardiner’s epic oeuvre.

Originally I thought of listening to the cantatas in their respective cycles. But upon further consideration I have decided to listen to them in chronological order. Clearly listening to the cantatas in their cycles would provide a sense of narrative – religious and spiritual – but by listening to them chronologically I believe that while I won’t necessarily lose the ‘spiritual’ impact created by Bach’s genius, I will also experience the development of Bach’s musical genius as well.

Similarly this won’t be an aria-by-aria, chorale-by chorale, chorus-by-chorus account. That would be impossible. Instead my entries will be determined by the whimsical, emotional impact of my listening.

So to begin, his earliest cantatas written in 1707.

Review – The Beauty of Baroque. Danielle de Niese, The English Concert/Harry Bickett

In Baroque, Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review on June 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm

A lesson learned – never listen to a new CD when in a bad mood. If I hadn’t revisited this album once again I would have missed what is, overall, a delightful, if not compelling, recital disc.

Danielle de Niese first came to public notice for her memorable performance as Cleopatra in McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. Since then she has played other roles, notably Poppea as well as released a disc of Mozart arias. This new album focuses, as the title makes clear, on a mixed bag of music from the baroque era – namely Monteverdi, Purcell, Pergolesi, Bach and naturally, Handel. And in some of the numbers she is accompanied by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.

The disc opens with Purcell’s Come again: Sweet love doth now invite and What if I never speed? both of which de Niese delivers with charm, delicacy and attention to the texts. However from the start de Niese displays a noticeable breathiness, and while this may, in part, be due to too close a recording set up, personally I also believe it’s also to do with her technique which during the recital affects her ability to produce a smooth, legato line as required.

Next come two old Handel stalwarts, Ombrai mai fu from Serse. and Let The Bright Seraphim from Samson. While de Niese does justice to the first aria, singing it with great simplicity and musical intelligence, she fails to deliver, as I mentioned above, the requisite fluid, legato line, but instead chops the vocal line and – in some cases – seeming to snatch her breaths. It might not be a definitive performance but her rich, golden tone is hard to resist. In the second aria, with it’s accomplished trumpet obbligato, de Niese’s bright and agile soprano comes into it’s own. And thankfully she doesn’t succumb to the common practice of superfluous ornamentation on the return of the first section.

They hand Belinda … When I am laid from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a deceptively difficult aria. It requires an ability to spin a smooth, almost unbroken line and surprisingly de Niese delivers it to produce what I think is almost the strongest performance on the disc. Her diction is crystal clear and her delivery of the phrase ‘Remember me’ is particularly poignant, emphasised as it is by subtle use of vibrato.

From Acis and Galatea comes Heart, the seat of soft delight. With its gentle recorder accompaniment, De Niese achieves the requisite sense of pastoral rapture. Indeed it immediately recalled her wonderful performance as Acis at Covent Garden when it was then second part of a double bill after Sarah Connolly in Dido and Aeneas. If you get the chance snap up a copy of the DVD.

Monteverdi is represented by the wonderful duet Pur ti miro from L’incoronazione di Poppea and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. Joined by Andreas Scholl in the duet from the closing act, this is the crowning highlight of the recital disc. Their two voices entwine and blend perfectly above the delicate accompaniment in this rapturously erotic music. The second Monteverdi number with it’s fleeting lute work doesn’t work so well, de Niese failing to match the dance-inspired infectiousness of the her accompanist.

Scholl returns for Io t’abbraccio from Handel’s Rodelinda. It’s clear that he provides a clear focus of inspiration and support for de Niese as this duet rivals the previous for the top slot. However it fails to ignite in the same way but is still well sung.

Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me from The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last Handel aria on the disc. The rather turgid, plodding accompaniment from Bickett doesn’t help de Niese as she tries to convey what is one of Handel’s finest arias. Again the breathiness returns here and interestingly in this aria alone does she seem to have almost imperceptible problems with intonation.

The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater follows and again de Niese and Scholl entwine their voices to beautiful effect although the performance lacks any sense of light and shade – sung practically at one volume throughout.

It’s a shame that de Niese’s disc ends with JS Bach, as personally these two arias are the least convincing on the disc. I am not sure that her voice suits his music at all. Sich üben im Lieben from the wedding cantata Weichtet nur, betrübte Schatten is marred by the obbligato oboists intonation problems and generally feels laboured rather than loved. Schafe können sicker weiden fares slightly better although she is challenged by the sustained vocal line and therefore remains unconvincing in this specific repertoire.

Ultimately however De Niese’s breath control – which I believe can only be blamed in part on the close recording – somewhat marrs what is a good, if not compelling, recital disc. Throughout de Niese is ably, if somewhat unimaginatively supported by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bickett.

However it is worth it for de Niese’s and Scholl’s magical performance of Pur ti miro alone.

Shuffling Amidst Genius

In Classical Music, JS Bach on June 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Listening to JS Bach Cantatas (Soloists, Monteverdi Players & Chorus, John Elliott Gardiner)

JS Bach is simply one of the ‘greats’. Even his most intimate works – for example the works for solo keyboard – have a quiet grandeur and emotional impact that is not only unmatched by the majority of his Baroque colleagues but even by the generations of composers that followed. There is a clarity of form and an innate sense of musicality that often just leaves me speechless.

His cantatas must stand near the pinnacle  if not at the summit, of his musical œuvre. Bar the Passions they encapsulate all the things that make JS Bach a great and magnificent composer and a genius.

I have all twenty-odd CDs recorded by John Elliott Gardiner and his Monteverdi Soloists on their pilgrimage. It’s impressive, to say the least, that when Deutsche Gramophon cancelled their commitment to record all Bach’s cantatas, Gardiner took it upon himself to launch a label to finish this mission. Thus Soli Deo Gloria was born, a clear tribute to the phrase that Bach himself wrote at the end of each and every cantata that he wrote. And what an amazing achievement it is to complete the task with such aplomb and near perfect performances.

But I have to admit that it’s more than a challenge to contemplate listening to more than two or three complete cantatas in immediate succession.

So thank goodness for technology and in particular the shuffle function on my iPod. Naturally listening to complete cantatas is still the best way to appreciate the skill and the overall emotional impact that Bach achieved in each individual work and I love that SDG’s Facebook page gives a much needed helping hand in indicating which cantatas play on particular days. However selecting shuffle does afford the opportunity to marvel at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity and skill as well as getting a sense – even if only fleeting – of the depth and sincerity of his religious belief.

It should be said that without the texts in front of me – and only a very rudimentary grasp of German, the focus here is very much on the music. Apologies. I love Bach’s cantatas so perhaps at a later date I’ll return to write about specific works as a whole – texts, symbolism and all.

So hitting shuffle – and in admission skipping over chorales and simple recitatives throughout – the first piece is – quite surprisingly – the opening chorus from Cantata No. 78, Jesu, Der Du Meine Seele. This is based on a chaconne and reminds me immediately how Bach took contemporary dance forms and integrated them into even his most devotional works. Taken at a stately tempo, Gardiner and his chorus let the delicate interplay of the various orchestral parts in the instrumental episodes have equal importance. From the start there’s an overriding sense of momentum as Bach constantly develops and modifies the descending motif and, at one point inverting it – a simple yet beautiful effect. As the rhythmic development intensifies he ratchets up the tension in the instruments, floating the vocal lines above them, imploring God’s attention. I wonder what effect the juxtaposition of dance-inspired rhythm and the chorale-style vocal lines would have had on the most devout Lutherans in the congregation?

Next is Siehe, ich Stehe von der Tür und Klopfe an from Cantata No. 61. What a beautiful arioso, clocking in at just over one minute from beginning to end compared to the previous chorus. A simple pizzicato accompaniment and the vocal flourish for the bass soloist on Klopfe clearly signify the knocking – simple yet effective musical painting of the text. Brilliant.

What follows is the first aria with obbligato instrument. In this case violin for Ich traue  seiner Gnaden and tenor soloist. It’s worth saying here that consistently throughout the whole series of cantatas the standard of soloists – instrumental and vocal – is of the highest standard. Here the delicate violin writing gently wraps itself round the – at times – equally florid vocal writing and great emphasis around trust (traue) and grace (Gnaden).

Murre nicht, Lieber Christ (BWV 144) for alto soloist with it’s pulsing string accompaniment, highlighting the murmuring of the text, shows a different approach. Here Bach adds depth to the instrumental writing by doubling up the lead violins with the warm, sonorous tones of an oboe d’amore. The middle section with it’s running bass and ‘sighing’ motifs from the upper strings has an interesting rhythmic gear change just before the returning of the first section. Interesting to note that throughout the cycle  it is incredibly rare to hear any of the soloists ornament their da capo sections. How very different from church music written for their Catholic counterparts!

The bass arioso from BWV 71, Tag und nacht ist dein opens with obbligato flutes and oboes. Bach again sets the scene vividly yet with great economy. The first, almost pastoral  section – literally day and night are yours – immediately brings to mind for me that cantata about ‘sheep safely grazing’. It contrasts with the florid writing for the soloist and change of tempo in the middle section, with particularly fine handling of triplets in the vocal line just before the return to the opening section.

Next yet another wonderful aria, Ach! Ich sehe from Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe which opens with this bass aria. Here Bach uses a trumpet in a very unmartial manner to again add a very distinctive colour to the strings and their gentle lilting perpetual motion. The walking bass gives a real sense of ‘walking’ the the Hochzeit quite literally.

Aha,  A chorale! O Große Gott von treu breaks with the norm with it’s recorder obbligato throughout. Nice.

Du machst, O Tod, Mir nun nicht Ferne bange (BWV 114) with its jaunty oboe solo did throw me with its countertenor soloist. Ably sung but did Bach employ castrati? It’s one I will have to look up! Jury is out on that one.

To end, Verzage nichts, O Haüflein Klein. My first duet and a fitting place to draw a line. For soprano and tenor, it’s dance-like spirit is made even more distinctive by the  appogiatura’d bassoon obbligato which adds a slightly rustic feel. Again Bach uses the simplest of forces to great effect.

Of course I could just keep going. In total there are over one thousand individual tracks in my Bach cantata/Gardiner folder on my iPod but I will stop here for now.

Just from listening to these nine unrelated selections from his cantatas I’m simply in awe of Bach’s brilliance. His is an unending ability and talent to create completely different sound worlds each time using the simplest of means and, at the same time, painting the clearest of pictures and conveying the whole spectrum of devotion and emotion.

And it’s also clear from these performances that Gardiner and his players enjoyed every single moment of their amazing pilgrimage. If only I had been able to be in the audience just once.

A genius performed by brilliant, talented and totally committed singers and players.

Soli Deo Gloria? Too bloody right.

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