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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): "Cantatas of hope and heaven"

Maria Keohane, sopranoa; Matthias Winckhler, bassb; Netherlands Bach Society/Fabio Bonizzoni
concert: Jan 16, 2015, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Johann Sebastian BACH: Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (BWV 84)a; Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)b; Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57)ab; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Concerto grosso No. 12 in G 'Propitia Sydera'

[ripienists] Barnabás Hegyi, alto; Robert Buckland, tenor

The Netherlands Bach Society will celebrate its first centenary in 2021. In that year the complete oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach should be available for free to anyone who is interested in his music. This project is called All of Bach. In order to be sure that the whole project is completed on time the ensemble is in a kind of a hurry, because all the vocal works should be available in live performances. This means that every year a considerable number of cantatas have to be performed. As a result the Bach Society hardly performs any other music than Bach whereas in previous years earlier or later repertoire was included in the programmes of the season. Since last year it is nearly all Bach. Obviously it is impossible for the Society's musical director, Jos van Veldhoven, to direct all the performances himself. Because of that other musicians are invited to direct the Bach Society.

On 15 January 2015 it was the Italian keyboard player and founder of the ensemble La Risonanza, Fabio Bonizzoni, who directed the ensemble in three cantatas by Bach. This choice is remarkable, considering that he is not especially known as a Bach interpreter, and certainly not regularly performs Bach's vocal oeuvre. I was curious to hear how he would fare. He had to deal with one problem: Markus Flaig who was to sing the bass parts had to withdraw, apparently because of illness, and was replaced by his fellow German Matthias Winckhler.

The programme started with music by Georg Muffat: a concerto grosso from the collection Florilegium secundum of 1698. It was a rather unlikely choice and I couldn't see a direct link with the music of Bach, but it was very well played. First we heard three movements, and after the first cantata the ciacona, which is identical with the last movement of the Sonata V from Muffat's best-known collection, Armonico tributo of 1682.

The first cantata was Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (BWV 84, an uplifting piece for soprano with an orchestra of oboe and strings. The latter takes a solo role in the first aria, which is in fact a duet of soprano and oboe. The soloist was the Swedish soprano Maria Keohane who was a solist with the Bach Society previously and once again proved to be an excellent Bach interpreter. She delivered a nice performance with Martin Stadler giving a fine account of the oboe part. The tempo of this aria could have been a little faster. The secco recitative was well sung, but a bit too strict in time; it should have been taken with more rhythmic freedom. The second aria is another piece with obbligato parts for instruments, in this case again the oboe which is joined by the violin, beautifully played by the Society's concert master Shunske Sato. The closing chorale - where Ms Keohane was joined by Barnabás Hegyi, Robert Buckland and Matthias Winckhler - was questionable in the treatment of the fermates. The way some phrases were linked seemed rather illogical.

The first part was concluded by the cantata for bass Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56), one of Bach's most famous cantatas and quite demanding for the soloist. I had never heard Matthias Winckhler before, and I was curious what he would make of this piece. I liked his way of singing: he has a pleasant voice which seems well suited to this repertoire, although he is not a specialist in early music. Stylistically I was also satisfied with his performance: the text was well articulated, and he avoided an incessant vibrato. However, the interpretation was too one-dimensional and not differentiated enough. The opening aria was too straightforward, with too few dynamic inflections and not very expressive. The second aria, 'Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch', in which the oboe has again an obbligato part came off better, in an appropriate tempo and with good attention to the rhythmic pulse. The closing chorale was sung piano which seems rather questionable. It sounded a bit too romantic to my ears.

The second part of the concert was rather short: less than 30 minutes, and included just one cantata: Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57), for soprano and bass. Maybe a performance of the Kreuzstab cantata and this Concerto in dialogo at a stretch was considered as too demanding for the bass soloist. In a dialogue one probably expects two singers singing together, but that is not the case here. Only in the last recitative both singers participate. The cantata begins with a dictum - a quotation from the Bible - which is from the first letter of James (1,12). Those words are put into the mouth of Jesus, who is represented in this cantata by the bass, whereas the soprano personifies the Soul. The performance was generally quite good. Matthias Winckhler did well in the opening dictum and was especially impressive in the aria 'Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen', a kind of belligerent aria which suited his strong voice. Maria Keohane's sensitive performance of the aria 'Ich wünschte mir den Tod' was one of the highlights of the concert. The second aria, 'Ich gehe behende', included a beautiful obbligato part for the violin.

I was curious to find out how Fabio Bonizzoni was going to perform Bach's vocal music. As far as I am concerned he passed the test. There was much to enjoy, despite some less than happy moments. I was less satisfied with the venue of the concert. Previous concerts usually took place in a church which is most suitable for this repertoire. In June of last year TivoliVredenburg opened its doors, and the concerts have moved to this new hall. Its acoustic is very good but less than ideal for Bach's sacred music. It is not without reason that allofbach will include performances recorded in churches elsewhere. But why should Bach lovers over here be satisfied with a less than ideal venue?

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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