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Concert reviews

Bach Day 2016

Bach & Telemann: Sonatas
Ensemble Nevermind
concert: Jan 30, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sonata in d minor (BWV 525); Sonata in G (BWV 1039); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Quatuor No. 6 in e minor (TWV 43,e6)

Anna Besson, transverse flute; Louis Creac'h, violin; Robin Pharo, viola da gamba; Jean Rondeau, harpsichord

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sacred Works
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
concert: Jan 30, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 225); Magnificat in D (BWV 243); Missa in G (BWV 236)

Six years ago the Dutch Organization for Early Music for the first time organized a 'Bach Day' - on two consecutive days in January - in Utrecht and Amsterdam. It started a tradition which lasted until 2016. In the coming years these two days devoted to early music will continue but then devoted to other composers. Next year we will have a Vivaldi Day.

So January 30 was the last 'Bach Day', and we were offered a nice programme around the day. I attended two concerts which featured ensembles which are still rather young. The French ensemble Nevermind is not that well-known yet but the signs are that this is going to change. It has already won third prize in the International Van Wassenaer Competition in 2014 which resulted in a tour through the Netherlands. The concerts during the Bach day in Utrecht and one day later in Amsterdam were the last stations of that tour. Its members got to know each other at the Conservatoire of Paris. They share a passion for early music, folk music and jazz. The latter probably would one make to expect them to play in an very extraverted manner, but in fact their performances are rather intimate, even restrained.

I attended their concert in Utrecht which took place in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg. That was not the ideal venue; I had preferred the more intimate atmosphere of Hertz, the chamber music hall. Interestingly they played a programme with music by Bach and Telemann. It seems that the Early Music Festival and the Early Music Season have a bit of a problematic relationship with Telemann. I can't remember him being given any serious attention in the main programme of the annual festival. He is still considered inferior in comparison with Bach. The more I hear from him the more I am convinced that this is a prejudice which doesn't do him any justice. Nevermind not only included him in their programme, they even ended with one of his Paris quartets. First we heard Bach's Sonata in G (BWV 1039), the trio sonata version of the sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1027. The performance attested to the approach by Nevermind: the sonata received an intimate, refined and subtle interpretation. It was a bit of a shame that the balance within the ensemble was not entirely satisfying: especially in the fast movements the violin tended to overshadow the transverse flute. This was also manifest in the rest of the programme.

Next Nevermind played one of Bach's trio sonatas for organ; these are very well suited for a performance with an instrumental ensemble. The opening andante could have been a little faster. The last piece was one of Telemann's Paris quartets, a very fine and diverting piece. The opening movement comprises two strongly constrasting sections and their different character came across very nicely. After two vivid movements the piece ends with three movements which seem to be more or less the same in nature: gracieusement, distrait and modéré. But in the hands of these players they received their own distinct character. It was probably telling that the ensemble didn't choose a brilliant fast piece as its encore, but a largo from a quartet with obbligato harpsichord by the French composer Jean-Baptiste Quentin. Although I could imagine a more extraverted approach I certainly enjoyed the performances by Nevermind. I was happy to note that these young artists apparently are more interested in what the music is really about than in making an impression as virtuosos. Telemann - who hated virtuosity for its own sake - would have been very happy.

Vox Luminis is also a relatively young ensemble, but has already established itself in recent years as an important force in the early music scene. Their participation in various prestigious festivals - they were artists in residence in last year's Festival Early Music Utrecht - and their steadily growing discography attest to that. They are one of those ensembles which always seem to find a way to get through to the heart of the repertoire they perform. Once again I noticed their complete lack of vanity: the ensemble is excellent and the individual members are fine singers in their own right, but none of them seems to want to play first fiddle or has starlike airs. The music comes first, and that was very clear in the evening concert which closed the day.

There was a clear idea behind the choice of pieces. Two of them - Jesu, meine Freude and the Magnificat - are in five vocal parts and two of them - the Magnificat and the Missa in G - are in Latin. These connections brought a sense of coherence into the programme. The motets are often performed, the Magnificat is also fairly well known but the short masses - comprising only Kyrie and Gloria - are largely unknown quantities. That is to say: they are in their form as masses. But many Bach lovers will recognize several arias or choral parts from other cantatas. The missae breves, as they are often called, are largely reworkings of pieces from cantatas, just like Bach's masterpiece, the B minor Mass.

The Kyrie from the Missa in G is entirely in five parts and here we could admire the qualities of Vox Luminis as a vocal ensemble. Obviously it was supported by instrumentalists, and both blended wonderfully well. The Gloria includes several beautiful solos, sung by Tomas Kral and Werner van Mechelen. The latter was a late addition to the ensemble which had to deal with the flu going around. He delivered a very nice performance of Quoniam tu solus sanctus. There was also a beautiful duet of Caroline Weynants and Jan Kullmann.

The concert opened with the motet Jesu, meine Freude. It is often performed with one-voice-per-part and I prefer it that way. But Vox Luminis showed that a slightly larger line-up can work very well too. The text was given much attention and some key words were effectively singled out. The good articulation and diction contributed to a completely idiomatic performance. The chorales in German sacred music are often not sung that well, but it was different here, although there are always moments where one might prefer a somewhat stronger dynamic accentuation.

The concert ended with an impressive performance of one of Bach's finest works, the Magnificat. It has everything: nice arias, brilliant choral episodes and interesting obbligato parts for several instruments, such as the transverse flutes and the oboe. These were given outstanding performances by the members of the instrumental ensemble. I should not forget to mention the three trumpeters; their instruments are among the hardest to play, but they succeeded with flying colours. The arias received incisive performances, for instance from Sara Jäggi (Et exsultavit spiritus meus) and Robert Buckland (Deposuit potentes); the latter fully explored the theatrical features of this aria. The Sicut locutus was taken at a remarkably slow tempo. I probably would prefer a somewhat faster tempo here, but it came across very well, and one could admire the blending of the voices. The piece ended in full swing with the Gloria Patri, which allowed again the trumpets and the timpani to shine - but all in the interest of expression.

That is the link between the two ensembles I heard. Both explore the depths of the music they perform. The six-year tradition of Bach Days could not have come to a better finish.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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