Saturday, June 22, 2013

Opera (2)

Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen (Ottavio Dantone)

Henry Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen was first performed in May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre. It was based on Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The original play was strongly adapted: it was abridged, scenes were arranged in a different order and some characters were omitted. On the other hand, the librettist added verses which Purcell was to set to music. The work is divided into five acts; the characters differ from one act to the other; no character appears in more than one act. This indicates that the story of the play is not directly linked to the music. Without the spoken text it is impossible to follow the story, unless one is familiar with Shakespeare's play.

The version which is mostly performed and recorded is the second of 1693, and that also goes for the present recording. In the first version there was no music in Act 1; in 1693 three pieces were performed during this act, a duet, the 'Scene of the Drunken Poet' and a 'first act tune', a jig. In Act 3 a solo was included, the song 'Ye gentle spirits of the air', and in Act 5 'The Plaint' which has become one of Purcell's most famous vocal compositions.

This performance - originally released by the Italian label Arts - was recorded live at the Teatro Rossini in Ravenna. The audience is surprisingly quiet. That should be considered a virtue - it is quite annoying when every aria is greeted with loud applause in a live opera recording. However, here it is different: this semi-opera is entertainment, and one may expect the audience to show its appreciation. The fact that nothing of this kind happens - apart from the applause at the end - is probably due to the audience being Italian and following the text only through super-titles in the theatre where this performance took place. It is also likely that they were not quite familiar with the original play.

However, there could be another explanation. This performance may have taken place in a theatre - the booklet doesn't tell us whether it was scenic or not - but it isn't very theatrical. I never had the feeling of being actually there. It is a sequence of pieces sung and played, but that is it. Too little has been made of some of those moments which were definitely written to make audiences laugh, such as the scene of the drunken poet in Act 1 (Bundy) and the dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa in Act 3 (Bundy and Towers). In my collection I have the recording under the direction of William Christie (Harmonia mundi), and there the performers make much more of these episodes. Under Dantone's direction they are rather stiff and unimaginative. The more serious parts come off much better, such as the end of Act 2, with the entrance of the Night, and also the solos of the four seasons in Act 4.

The solo parts are different in quality. Andrew Carwood makes a bit of a slow start: 'Come, all ye songsters' is hesitant and his voice is too weak, but 'One charming night' and 'Thus the gloomy world' are much better. Rebecca Outram is fine, and I enjoyed her singing more than that of Gillian Keith. Carolyn Sampson is largely disappointing. 'The Plaint' is really spoilt by her wide and incessant vibrato. 'See, even Night herself is here' (Act 2) is a little better, but that is about the only one of her contributions which I could appreciate. Michael Bundy may be disappointing in the two scenes mentioned before, but there is nothing wrong with his singing from a technical and stylistic point of view.

On balance I am not very impressed, despite the good things which this disc has to offer. I most admired the orchestral playing. Dantone and his players are Italians, but they don't make the mistake to force this music into an Italian straigtjacket. Strong contrasts as one may expect in music by Italian composers would be completely inappropriate in Purcell's music. However, if you look for a recording of The Fairy Queen, this seems not to be first choice.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695): The Fairy Queen
Gillian Keith, Rebecca Outram, Carolyn Sampson (soprano), William Towers (alto), Andrew Carwood, Robert Murray (tenor), Michael Bundy (bass), New English Voices, Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Recorded 10 July 2001 (live) at the Teatro Rossini, Lugo di Romagna, Ravenna
Brilliant Classics 94221 (© 2012) (2 CDs: 65'19" - 67'07")

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Bach Cantatas from St Gallen

The Bach lover of the 21st century is spoilt for choice as far as the number of recordings of his cantatas is concerned. No less than five complete recordings - if we confine ourselves to performances with period instruments - are available: Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Leusink, Koopman, Suzuki and Gardiner. The latter two only recently finished their respective projects. To those one can add a large number of recordings of individual cantatas. Two conductors need special mention: Philippe Herreweghe and Sigiswald Kuijken. Their purpose is not the recording the whole cantata output, but a considerable number of cantatas are available on disc under their direction. We should not forget to mention the many recordings of solo cantatas by individual singers.

Even so, there is not that much chance to hear Bach's cantatas in public concerts. If such concerts take place it is mostly as part of a Bach festival, but in regular concert series taking place during the course of a year one won't see cantatas by Bach programmed that often. That was the main incentive for a project which takes place in Switzerland under the responsibility of the Bach Stiftung St. Gallen. I had read about this undertaking, but not heard any recording. Recently I received five CDs and three DVDs with recordings from this project. Rather than writing a review of these discs - many more are available right now - I decided to give my impressions on the basis of these recordings.

Let me start with quoting from the booklets of these discs what this project is all about. "Despite the wealth of Bach recordings available, the concert experience remains vital to musical appreciation. In the interest of sustaining this tradition, musician Rudolf Lutz and private banker Konrad Hummler resolved in 1999 to re-interpret Bach's complete vocal works - first and foremost his over 200 cantatas - in a new concert cycle. The project, which will span approximately 25 years, is privately funded by the J.S Bach Foundation of St. Gallen".

From these words we may gather that its main purpose is not so much adding another complete cycle to what is already available. It is the live performance of a cantata which is the core of the project. Every month one cantata is performed. This explains that the project will take much time until its completion.

The concerts take place in the Evangelische Kirche in Trogen, a village near St Gallen. Every concert begins with an introduction of the cantata. Rudolf Lutz, the musical director, explains the peculiarities of the music from the keyboard, and the theologian Karl Graf explains the theological and biblical aspects. Then the cantata is performed twice; the two performances are separated by a lecture, called "Reflections". The speakers are people with various backgrounds, artists, scientists, economists or politicians. One could compare these lectures with the sermons in St Thomas' in Bach's time. There is quite a strong difference between them, though. The speakers - at least those I have heard - take distance from the spiritual world in which Bach's cantatas were written. It seems unlikely that these lectures are helpful in bringing the world of Bach's cantatas closer to a modern audience.

When I received the CDs and DVDs I was surprised to see that each DVD includes only one cantata, even if it is very short, like Cantata 54 which lasts less than 13 minutes. However, this is not all: the DVDs also include the introduction and the lecture. Only one of the performances is included. The introduction is very interesting, but unfortunately the DVDs omit any subtitles. As a result they won't appeal to those who don't understand German. I can't imagine Bach lovers purchasing a DVD with 12 minutes of music just to see how the singers and players perform it. They will be more interested in the CDs which contain three cantatas each.

I have the impression that they are more or less put together at random. I can't see any direct connection between the cantatas on a single disc, neither in regard to subject nor scoring nor the time of composing. It also seems that Lutz has avoided to take a position in regard to the subject of the number of singers which should be involved. "The ensemble varies according to the work in question: some cantatas require a choir of up to 20 voices while others are complemented only by soloists (...)". The choice seems to be based on Rudolf Lutz's personal views regarding a specific cantata rather than on historical sources. I can't imagine any source indicating the need of 20 voices.

There is a tendency of late to perform and record Bach's cantatas with a large organ instead of a small chamber organ. That is, for instance, the case in the project of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam and Musica Amphion. That practice has not been applied here, which can be explained from the fact that every performance takes place in the same church. Its organ is a late 19th-century instrument and obviously not suitable for performances of baroque music.

These issues justify my conclusion that this project doesn't and will not provide any new insights in regard to performance practice. That is not meant as criticism; it is just not the purpose of this project. However, it could be an important factor for those who may consider purchasing the discs which document the performances in this project. It seems that these are especially worthwhile for those who have attended the concerts. That goes even more for the DVDs.

However, for many that will not be decisive. They would like to have more than just one interpretation, and I can imagine that more than average Bach lovers who have more than one complete recording in their collection - maybe even all of them - will seriously consider collecting these discs as well. In their interest I will give my impressions of the performances on the basis of the discs and DVDs which I have heard.

Let me first say that I was almost never completely disappointed about any cantata. One of the strengths is the choir which is very good. The singing is lively and the performances show a good understanding of the idiom. The voices blend well, but sometimes I noted a lack of transparency, especially in those choruses in which the polyphony is rather dense. That could well be partly due to the acoustic, which isn't bad but probably less than ideal. Moreover, a choir of 20 singers is too large.

The orchestra is also good; the instrumental solo parts are always played very well. However, in some cases the performances don't quite bring what one would expect. The aria 'Die schäumenden Wellen' from Cantata 81, for instance, is too feeble. It also happens now and then that specific features which are mentioned in the introduction are hardly noticeable in the actual performance.

As only one cantata is performed every month it is almost inevitable that the soloists differ from one performance to the other. Whether the involvement of soloists is just a matter of coincidence or the result of deliberate decisions is something I can't tell. Some of the soloists belong to the elite of early music singers, like María-Cristina Kiehr, Makoto Sakurada - who also participated in the recordings by the Bach Collegium Japan - and Wolf Matthias Friedrich. Others were unknown to me. Again, I am generally pleased about the way the solo parts are performed. There are some weak spots, and I don't appreciate every single voice that much, but that is also a matter of taste. Some arias come off better than others, but the far majority is at least alright.

It is no surprise that the best-known singers deliver the best performances. María-Cristina Kiehr participates in the performance of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180). She gives a fine account of the recitative and ensuing chorale; the aria 'Lebenssonne, Licht der Sinnen' is one of the best I have heard. The German soprano Ulrike Hofbauer is equally impressive: she sings the demanding aria 'Gelobet sei der Herr' (BWV 129) admirably and sings beautifully in the duet from Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (BWV 42). Her partner is the tenor Bernhard Berchtold, a singer who was new to me, but who made a generally good impression, for instance in 'Jesu, laß durch Wohl und Weh' (BWV 182). I have already mentioned Makoto Sakurada; he gives a fine performance of 'Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten' from Cantata BWV 1, but considering his experience in Bach I was a bit surprised that his pronunciation was less than perfect.

Another seasoned performer is the bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich who is a specialist in German vocal music. His contributions confirm his skills, for instance in 'Wer bist du' (BWV 132). He effectively explores the sharp edges of the aria 'Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer' in Cantata BWV 81. Another new name was Markus Volpert, a singer who deserves to keep an eye on. He makes a very good impression in these recordings. A good example is the recitative and ensuing aria 'Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen' (BWV 42).

The altos are a rather mixed package. The male alto Markus Forster sings his aria in Cantata BWV 22 well, but I am disappointed by his performance of Cantata BWV 54 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) which is short on expression. That is also due to the instrumental contribution; the liner-notes refer to "penetrating bow strokes" but I didn't really notice them. Forster's colleague Jan Börner - also someone I didn't know before - has a nice voice as he proves in Cantata BWV 63. The contralto Roswitha Müller gives a good interpretation of her aria in Cantata BWV 81. I don't understand, though, why she sings with much vibrato, whereas she doesn't use any at all at long notes on the words "schläft" and "hoffen". If she can avoid it, why doesn't she do so? Her colleague Claude Eichenberger (whose name is several times given as "Eichberger") has a voice I don't find particularly attractive. There is nothing wrong with her singing in Cantata BWV 35 (Geist und Seele wird verwirret), but there is also nothing in her interpretation which really struck me. I am more impressed with Margot Oitzinger who gives a very good speech-like interpretation of the aria in Cantata BWV 34; both her diction and the amount of expression are excellent. The duet 'Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten' (BWV 78) is one of the highlights of these discs; here Oitzinger is joined by Julia Neumann. Their voices blend perfectly; the tempo is well-chosen and the rhythmic pulse comes off very well. Lastly I would like to mention another singer I didn't know, the soprano Eva Oltiványi. I am not impressed by her singing in Cantata BWV 132, but in Cantata BWV 1 she delivers a very beautiful rendition of the aria 'Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen, göttlichen Flammen', in excellent partnership with the oboe da caccia. The difference could well be explained by the difference in time: the former cantata was recorded in 2006, the latter 1 in 2010.

A couple of observations to conclude. The recitatives don't always come off that well. It is a problem I often notice in recordings of baroque vocal music: they are not speech-like enough and the singers don't take enough rhythmical freedom. In some chorales the organ plays short interludes between the phrases, probably suggesting the participation of the congregation. There seems to be no evidence, though, that this was indeed practised in Leipzig. In Cantata BWV 54 Rudolf Lutz felt that a chorale was missing, so he delivered a chorale setting of his own making. I can't see any reason for that, and the change in style between the cantata and his chorale damages the overall result.

One can only greatly appreciate the efforts of the performers and the people who make this project financially possible. There are much worse ways to spend your money. The artistic standards are highly respectible: on every disc which came my way I have heard at least a couple of things which I greatly enjoyed. Bach lovers are well advised to investigate this project. For more information take a look at the site of the J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen.