musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

JS Bach, Schütz
Johannette Zomer a, soprano, Bernarda Fink b, contralto, Werner Güra c, tenor, Stephan MacLeod d, bass; RIAS Chamber Choir e; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin f
Dir: Daniel Harding

concert: Utrecht, Dec 15, 2003

JS Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) acdef; Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248): Cantatas 1 (Jauchzet, frohlocket) bcdef, 2 (Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend) abcdef, 3 (Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen) abcdef; H Schütz: Deutsches Magnificat (SWV 426) e

Daniel Harding is a young conductor whose meteoric rise to prominence has attracted much attention. He started his career at a very young age. Over the years he has been active as conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and since this year he is the artistic leader of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In his performances of classical and romantic repertoire he follows in the footsteps of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in that he aims to translate the achievements of the historical performance practice in pre-romantic music on period instruments to the performance of post-baroque music by traditional symphony orchestras.
Only occasionally he works with period instrument orchestras. One of these occasions was the concert with music for Advent and Christmas by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach, in which he conducted the RIAS Chamber Choir and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

I assume that Schütz is the earliest composer whose music Harding has ever conducted. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that this was the most unsatisfying part of the concert. That was partly due to the concert venue: a modern concert hall is definitely not the right spot to perform Schütz' sacred music. It needs the reverberation of a church. But the RIAS Chamber Choir also used too much vibrato, which distorted the clarity of the polyphonic structure. The fact that the expression of the text was limited, and that there was a lack of differentiation between the notes is something the conductor has to be blamed for. It shows a lack of experience in and perhaps true insight into this kind of music.

Some of these deficiencies were also hampering the performances of Bach's works. The concert started with the cantata for the first Sunday in Advent, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61). This cantata opens with a chorus in form of a French overture, symbolising the entrance of the King. This character, and in particular the dotted rhythm, didn't quite come across. Werner Güra sung the next recitative 'Der Heiland ist gekommen' admirably, with the right rhythmical freedom, and in the appropriate declamatory style. Just as good was the following aria for tenor 'Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche', in which the strings also played very well. In the following recitativo accompagnato the bass represents the vox Christi. He says - in a quotation from Revelations 3,20 - "Siehe, siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür und klopfe an" (Behold, I stand at the door, and knock). The knocking is expressed by the pizzicato chords of the strings and the declamation of the bass. Stephen MacLeod wasn't making too much of it, and the playing of the chords wasn't strong enough; it was something like piano. This seems hardly appropriate in regard to the text. It doesn't describe hesitant knocking, but authoritative and persistent knocking - playing the pizzicato chords forte would have been much more fitting.
This recitative is followed by one of Bach's most intimate arias, 'Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze', in which the soprano, representing the individual believer, asks his heart to open up to Jesus, thereby answering his request for entrance. Johannette Zomer sung this quite well, but unfortunately in the wrong tempo. Bach has indicated the tempo adagio for the B part which makes sense considering the text ("Bin ich gleich nur Staub und Erde"). By performing the A part in this tempo, the contrast between the two sections disappeared.
The closing chorale demonstrated another shortcoming of this concert: the straight and legato singing of the chorales. The lack of differentiation between the notes which I referred to regarding Schütz' Deutsches Magnificat was present here as well and also in the rest of the programme.

I haven't talked yet about the size of the performing apparatus. One doesn't need to support the theory that in Bach's time sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part - for brevity referred to as 'OVPP' - in order to criticise the number of singers involved. It seems to me that a choir of 26 singers is just too large to be able to give an ideal performance of Bach's choruses and chorales. Maybe that wouldn't have been a problem with a choir which uses minimal vibrato - like the Collegium Vocale - or if the choir had been conducted by a typical 'choral conductor' - like Philippe Herreweghe - but here the choir was able to produce the dynamic contrasts Harding was asking for, but not to realise the polyphonic structure of Bach's choruses as clearly as desirable. The expression of the text was a little superficial, there was a lack of breathing spaces and of natural phrasing and articulation.
I also wondered about the dynamics in some chorales. I have noted a general tendency to sing phrases piano which are about 'peace', like here in the chorale 'Brich an, du schönes Morgenlicht' (BWV 248,2): "und letztlich Frieden bringen". I can't see any reason for that.

As far as the contributions of the soloists are concerned, Johannette Zomer and Werner Güra were making the strongest impression. Güra realised the recitatives very well, and gave a very good reading of 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' (BWV 248,2), even though there was another strange choice of tempo here. The slow speed was unsuitable to illustrate the appeal to the shepherds to rush to the stable.
The bass Stephen MacLeod was rather uneven. He doesn't have a very clear voice, and it takes some time to get used to it. The aria 'Grosser Herr und starker König' (BWV 248,1) was sung reasonably well, although the expression of the text could have been better. The duet with Johannette Zomer, 'Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen' (BWV 248,3), was one of the highlights of the concert, though.
Disappointing was the contralto Bernarda Fink, who wasn't able to realise the beauty of the alto arias in the first three cantatas. Apart from her continuous vibrato - which is stylistically debatable and which I find very irritating - I thought her singing lacklustre and uninvolved. There was also too little contrast between the A and B section of 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' (BWV 248,2).

The orchestra was excellent, as one would expect from this ensemble, which is one of the best in the business. But in the end it is the conductor who decides how things are done. And some aspects of the interpretation of the orchestral parts were questionable. There was too much staccato playing where it wasn't needed. It is a way of separating notes, but unless there is some special reason for it, it is the wrong way. Leader Bernhard Forck showed impressively what rhetorical playing really means in the violin solo in the aria 'Schliesse, mein Herze' (BWV 248,3). Really strange was the fact that the trumpet at the end of the aria 'Grosser Herr und starker König' ended on c''' instead of c''. As much as I am in favour of freedom of the interpreter to make his own choices, changing notes this way doesn't belong to that.

To sum up, it was a most interesting night, with a lot of things to enjoy, but also too many disappointing elements and questionable decisions.
And maybe Daniel Harding should stick to post-baroque music and leave the earlier repertoire to others, at least for the time being.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Concert reviews