The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

BBC - CBSO Birmingham: Harrowing memorial Bach's St Matthew Passion - Simon Rattle, C Gerhaber, C Tilling, M Padmore, T Quasthoff - 06.03.10

Performances of music from before time of Beethoven have frequently been taken over by the authentic performance practice movement - long by now called ‘period’ for short. Linear clarity for Bach choral music (i.e. for interwoven lines for winds through body of strings), intimacy of feeling, and clear exposure of what feeling gets invested all are positive results. Such exposure is assured in place of the padding the old Romantic sonorities of the past sometimes provided in their stead.

There is also however in ‘period’ risk of quickly becoming smug and accepting new tradition just as deleterious, deadly to performing Bach as old ways may have been. There is still not any getting around considerations of form, good rhythm, and valid expression as to what should happen, especially considering something like St Matthew Passion. When is however the last time you have felt urge to pull out the Solti, Bernstein, or if such exists, version sung by Mormon Tabernacle Choir?

It is always highly anticipated for Simon Rattle to re-appear at site of his old day job, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, thanks to his many years there before. For event at hand to have been dubbed ‘Rattle’s Bach’ however rings false; calling it that does not give Sir Simon ultimately credit for much. If one sought something uniquely Rattle’s own, one must have left disappointed. That fortunately was not modus operandi or impetus toward what happened here; the utter necessity with which Simon Rattle infused so much of performing St Matthew Passion just simply spoke for itself.

If there was musically some message to Rattle’s interpreting St Matthew Passion, it was of consolidation. There were obviously large choral forces on stage, two hundred and forty, including fifty children – part of very fine accessory to the City of Birmingham SO chorus. This so well drew somewhat too from the good old bad Romantic past - to underscore, as stated in interview, equally 'period' important theological underpinnings to what Bach wrote; much musical 'period' conscientiousness on part of Rattle and all the rest certainly played into this as well. Pardoning occasional oversights, Rattle and company found good qualified success here.

The project of doing the St Matthew Passion moves on to Berlin, where it is joined by semi-staging of sorts by Peter Sellars. This will be curious - an experience I hope not attempted to be abetted by Mark Morris choreography or gimmicks along such lines so obviously American vernacular as that. It was hard to tell without having been there what diluted or dilated the expressive impact of hearing a W Meier/Heppner Tristan und Isolde, whether the Bill Viola videos Sellars employed, or just all-purpose bland conducting by Esa-Pekka Salonen – to be getting off-topic momentarily.

Listening to Part One of Herbert von Karajan’s 1972 DGG Matthew Passion, the opening chorus “Kommt, ihr Tochter’ especially, made me think of Brahms – without my being reminded of what Harnoncourt said about old Bach performances. Harnoncourt’s second or third take on the Matthew for Teldec with adults singing all the solo parts is certainly mildly recidivist in including a few suspicious Brahmsian accents. The affectation of childlike voice by Christine Schafer is annoyingly just that, in an early soprano aria - Dorothea Roschmann hardly less culpable. Next to Ann Monoyios and Barbara Bonney for John Eliot Gardiner, (Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo for Gardiner on nearly as bad behavior), Schafer and Roschmann seem more out of place than to have sung it for John Eliot Gardiner on his highly overrated recording. Several arias on Gardiner give off coyness, bathos better fitting ‘Summer of ’42 or ‘Love Story’ than it does Bach. Among period recordings, my favorite remains the path-breaking 1970 Harnoncourt (Teldec).

Rattle’s ‘Kommt, ihr Tochter’ will most likely further tighten with time and several more chances at it. It got the evening off slightly tentatively. There was indeed here a hint of Brahmsian hemiola within the choral lines, and also a little clumsiness in differentiating accenting between the two choruses - between sections of divided double chorus on stage. There was also here some sway to the forward motion, but fortunately without losing sight of goal as to where the musical line is going or its expressive agenda but intermittently. Rattle then took the final chorale chorus ‘O Mensch bewein’ of Part One breezily. It lacked what expressive freedom, even for chance to make some use of rubato Rattle could have instead invested therein

One anticipates depiction of greater suffering upon hearing ‘O Mensch bewein.” The quite rapid stepwise motion in dyads in the violins, when taken quickly, should not have us entirely as far down the line psychologically as the invitations from solo voices toward end of Part Two - in mind of the benefits of the finished work on the Cross - so soon. There are still other things to take into consideration here. Rattle was not quite so two-dimensional as to thoroughly ignore the line in the lower choral parts in effect halting or holding back forward motion. Such writing eloquently speaks of Man’s responsibility for the Cross, in gentle, but still quite stern admonition to close Part One. Certainly this performance of the lengthy Gethsamane portion of Part One that had just passed was powerfully effective so that time for some balm with ‘O Mensch, bewein’ had arrived.

Once into opening sequence of events, to which ‘Kommt ihr Tochter’ is prologue (and also parenthetical glimpse into sequence of events near crucifixion), things started going for Simon Rattle et al alarmingly well – through interchange of recitatives, arias, dialogues, chorales, turbae, etc. Mark Padmore was the sweet-toned, but always directly expressive Evangelist, giving his lines the right immediacy of feeling, emotion called for. He discreetly judged - gauging things at every point - at how much distance to how involved he should divest of this great narrative to us. His work here also showed very fine growth in vocal and expressive maturity in singing this, compared with his attempts at Evangelist in also the St. John ten years earlier. Those lines calling for pause for introspection he did so here with nary a hint of self-consciousness. This was a sterling performance certainly going the distance toward defining standard for performing this part. His sweetness of tone for making several reaches over the crest of his lines, where not to be incisive, beguilingly increased involvement in the narrative.

Christian Gerhaber was hardly less fine as the Christus, if next to Padmore intermittently self-conscious about his assignment. Word emphasis, with certainly near as much flexibility rhetorically as Padmore, was paramount, even through Last Supper arioso, without hectoring or excessively breaking up the line for the latter – nothing cloying to any of it. Most telling was his draining of all vibrato from his sound, unconventionally so, for harrowing line at Gethsemane where Jesus speaks of His great heaviness of spirit. This moment, unwittingly or not, brought to mind similar recourse to such for two particular lines as Faust for Metzmacher in Schumann a week earlier in Berlin. Without help of any props, the mostly soft-grained voice of Gerhaber supplied Christ with all fitting poise, dignity, reserve. Though he employed a little distancing of the text he was singing at times, he also conveyed doting care we expect of his lines for his disciples, mankind, even for those who deny or victimize who is portrayed here. Gerhaber’s tone of despondent resignation for accepting what lay before Christ was very moving.

With voice of perfect melos, Camilla Tilling proved very fine as soprano soloist – very occasional unsteadiness at the break aside. Her brief portrayals of Pilate’s Wife and maiden deriding Peter’s hasty denials sounded incipiently tense, incisive, respectively. That in the wrong hands can easily turn into ‘Summer of ’42 bathos (with bassetchen accompaniment – i.e. bass line in the treble register), ‘Aus Liebe’ accompanied by solo flute and oboes made for utter paragon of beseeching simplicity. Infusion of vibrato into long cantilena and withdrawal of such for darker sound was both subtle and supple as best served the text. In spirit of desolation, it uniquely conveys, captured so well here, the great love of Christ, His motivation for going to the Cross. Tilling, also notably very well played the Angel in Messiaen’s St Francois d’Assissi for Metzmacher in Holland two years ago. The innocence, direct simplicity with which she sang “Ich will dir meine Herze’ with very fine oboe obbligato was also ideal. Her flexible darkening of tone to match Kozena for dialogue with chorus near end of Part One beautifully enhanced this passage – close to as lightly accompanied as ‘Aus Liebe.’. No less than with any of the rest, the fugato turba that followed sounded forthrightly decisive, in its strong accenting. From deft guidance of former to decisive of the latter, Rattle was most adept.

The least among altogether fine team of soloists ultimately turned out to be Magdalena Kozena. Through into so far as a fine ‘Erbame dich’ in Part 2, with fine, highly expressive yet reserved obbligato from Laurence Jackson, hootiness intermittently from Kozena could be overlooked for the emotion she invested into it all. One or two later passages, past unforgettably choked final note of ‘Erbame dich,’ revealed however fallacy in taking such all-holds-barred approach to Bach. For one thing, if the soloist (or conductor) sweats too much, then the audience, invited by Bach to fully, psychologically partake in this, gets denied. The sincerity of Ms Kozena was never in doubt, neither likely was the mental, vocal fatigue by which time she got to ‘Ach, Golgotha’ and great aria following it.

‘Sehet Jesus hat die Hand,’ with its very long reaching melisma off opening quarter note, almost explicitly comes with the warning that better to take such on lightly than to lean on it so as did Kozena, Whatever a Sellars/Rattle ecumenical message of sorts is out there, this is not Bach’s ‘Mater dolorosa.’ Since it happens at point which this narrative reaches the Cross, one might easily be led so astray. The reaching out of the arms of Christ while in egregious pain and state of open shame, to all those in his midst both physically and otherwise, is the very selfless invitation it is and message here. It is the more greatly moving this way; it is also the way Bach wrote it, very much on purpose as true to what Luther taught in his sermons as well. After, nearly on pitch, bawling the opening line, Kozena did lighten up some, but for this piece, too little, too late. Jerkily accompanied, layered on approach to “Erbarm’es Gott” (right before just passable ‘Koennen Thranen’) also misfired – on part of both Kozena and Rattle.

Topi Lehtipuu, giving Padmore a much deserved rest, made most earnest, direct expression of his ‘O Schmerz’, followed by noble etching of his two arias ‘Ich will bei meinen Jesus’ and ‘Geduld.’ For crest of his lines in especially his opening recitative, he openly sounded forth a fast but controlled vibrato with fine expressive abandon, to complement Padmore’s Evangelist in a telling way. He thus filled out right what Padmore was conscientious on most lines to restrain.

If anyone might have been deduced to be both soloist and resident theologian in one on stage at Birmingham Symphony Hall for this, look no further than Thomas Quasthoff. He achieved as close to humanly possible a definitive interpretation of bass soloist. If you remain convinced after this that such a thing as a small part exists, here is who among two people I would have you meet - except that the great Alec Guinness is no longer with us. The varying and highly variable moods, attitudes, temperaments of Pilate, Judas, Peter, false witness, Caiaphas Quasthoff made all so very telling, incisive – to make it easy to guess there being several singers on stage acting these parts instead.

Simplest of all, Quasthoff was unabashedly direct with ‘Geht mir meinem Jesum’, matched well by equally unabashed virtuosic obbligato from (co-concertmaster) Catherine Arlidge. He sang with well gauged legato and fine pointing of words, but austerely his opening ‘Gerne will ich mich” and with deep feeling and introspection to distinctively very fine, ruddy toned viola da gamba obbligato (Richard Tunniliffe - also to be cited here for special praise), ‘Komm, susse Kreuz.' The latter made one out of three peaks achieved for Part 2 in this performance, ‘Aus Liebe’ (Tilling) and Quasthoff again for an absolutely definitive interpretation of his closing aria, ‘Mache dich mein Herze’ the others. A young Matti Salminen sounds richer on Karl Richter’s valedictory recording, and for first time I heard it, I thought perhaps as far as anyone could take the final aria. However then there is Thomas Quasthoff, who eschewed making so much of a fine range of well varied sonority from deep low notes to freely expressive top, for sake of its simple message. One needlessly feared that Quasthoff’s final line would be for Pilate at his most petty. Bach assuages our fears with series of final brief Adieu’s to for the moment dead Christ – and so did Quasthoff.

Simon Rattle closed with a well measured, proportioned final chorus - choral preparation by Simon Halsey absolutely first-rate throughout – including in scaling down so far the sound of so many voices on stage. If Rattle’s interpretation of St Matthew at times sounded mildly unvaried in color and emphasis, it was even instead perhaps always the most conscientious. The dark color for extended flat and sharp keys during Gethsemane, for instance, registered in full, as did nearly so, the silences between passages at, around Golgotha. Pacing, other than questioned momentarily once or twice, was most intelligent. Rattle managed to keep lean both the orchestral and choral textures for solo lines within to emerge clearly and with expressive point. He minded very well good tenets of baroque performance practice both texturally and for most solo work from his principals. His differentiation of pace, one chorale to another was very adept. ‘Bin ich gleich’ especially and ‘Befiehl von der Wege’ flowed purposefully forward with practical application of their texts forefront. Hushed stance for both ‘O Haupt’ and “Wenn ich einmal” toward the end was equally fine.

The news of the sudden passing of Phillip Langridge had to be a blow, in anticipation of already a fine event - now one very fittingly dedicated to his memory. While in grade school, KLEF-FM played new recordings of both Christmas Oratorio and Messiah of his – artist new to me - each opposite Elly Ameling. He made his mark so distinctively also in Britten, Janacek, as Idomeneo and Loge, through with great aplomb, the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, the latter that famously belied his having been pushing seventy. It added on to already a very well varied repertoire that he always delivered with fine technique, musicality and great expressivity. All best condolences are to extend to Ann Murray - distinctively passionate Elvira and Ariodante on disc - and to all the rest of those who loved him and will miss him dearly. Mark Padmore, singing Evangelist from memory very well, famously did memory of Langridge the honors such deserves.

As afterthought, who knows what Peter Sellars might have in mind for St. Matthew Passion? However, for sake of those who might carp or criticize, take for example the bass aria, as sung by Walter Berry, ‘Gerne will ich’ – on what we surmise is traditional Bach interpretation. The aria invites us on personal level to identify with the suffering of Christ. Taken at a funereal Adagio, it was as though Karajan could have just consulted his Zen master over this. How much more of a revisionist stance could one ever expect? Berry is (posthumously) to be lauded for his breath control to have courageously sustained the aria so well. As for Sellars and Simon Rattle, we can just hope for what will further our insight into this great masterpiece instead of hindering it. There is strong hope that there will be – Rattle has conducted the St John Passion before – more for Rattle to bring into his work in other repertoire from this, instead of being any the lesser for such involvement he availed of himself here.

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