Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

Early Swedish opera - Stenhammer world premiere

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

03 Aug 2012

Bach Mass in B minor, BBC Prom 26

Bach probably never intended the full Mass in B Minor to be performed, so it is tricky to talk about what forces he meant it to be performed by. But the Kyrie and Gloria certainly were sent by Bach to the Royal Court at Dresden (which was Roman Catholic), and these movements could be used in the Lutheran Church as well.

J S Bach : Mass in B minor

Joélle Harvey: soprano, Carolyn Sampson : soprano, Iestyn Davies : counter-tenor, Ed Lyon : tenor, Matthew Rose : bass, Choir of the English Concert, The English Concert, Harry Bicket : conductor

2nd August 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

So we are entitled to start postulating about what Bach intended. But performing the work in the Royal Albert Hall is entirely different again, a space far bigger than Bach could ever have conceived of being used for his work. So that whilst I was listening to the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on Thursday 2 August at the BBC Proms, given by the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket, inevitably I was thinking not only about the quality of performance, but about the decisions taken to realise the work in the space and how successful they were as well.

Now, I have to admit up front that I am a one-to-a-part man. There is good evidence for this, it was very much standard Lutheran practice (see Andrew Parrott’s book The Essential Bach Choir). Whilst Bach might have sent the work to Dresden, he was a Lutheran through and through. So though he would presumably have welcomed hearing the piece in Dresden performed by soli, choir and orchestra (in our modern manner), it would not have surprised him to hear with it with just five or six singers. To fill the Royal Albert Hall though, you need to boost your forces somewhat.

Bicket used an orchestra of 50 players, including four flutes, two oboes and two bassoons, with continuo provided by a chamber organ sitting on the platform. Perhaps as a gesture to balance, his wind and brass players (bassoons apart) stood up to play. His choir had over forty singers in it with female sopranos and a mixture of male and female altos. The soloists were sopranos Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ed Lyon and bass Matthew Rose.

For me, one of the tests of a good Mass in B Minor, irrespective of the forces used, is to listen to the first vocal/choral entries in the first fugal Kyrie. Everyone can get the massive opening chords right. But for the fugue that follows, which is started by the instruments and then continued by the voices, it is essential that voices and instruments are balanced in the right way. The instruments are not accompanying the voices, all parts are equal, so that when the voice parts enter it should be as part of the whole texture, not creating an entirely new one with the instruments relegated to the distant background.

This Bicket got right. His choir sang very smoothly, with a good line and though a little dominant were balanced nicely with the instrumental forces. More worryingly the performance lacked bounce and immediacy, Bicket kept the whole of the first Kyrie very much under wraps; small gestures from him being echoed by small vocal and instrumental gestures; nothing too big, but nothing too vivid; all a little bit too discreet and polite.

For the Christe, sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Joelle Harvey blended beautifully and sang with a fine sense of line, supported by a strong bass line. But with the second Kyrie I began to notice a problem. During the louder tutti passages it just wasn’t possible to hear the wind instruments properly, the volume and mass of the strings and voices was simply too much. Instead the wind texture would become apparent at moments when the strings and voices thinned. Now Bach’s orchestration isn’t generally about colour, it is about lines. In 19th century orchestration, if you can’t quite hear a particular instrument it is not essential because the single instrument is contributing colour to a full chord. But in Bach each instrument, or group of instruments, has a line, an important line. So from my seat in the central stalls, it sounded as if Bicket should have doubled his oboes and bassoons to keep the proportions right. This was something that I kept noticing throughout the performance, one of those nagging things which isn’t fatal, but which you wonder why it didn’t bother someone earlier.

Still on the subject of balance, I have to say a brief word about the organ. It probably did a sterling job supporting the singers but the instrument was simply too small and too discreet for the venue. Bach used his church organs for continuo, and whilst these instruments were far smaller and far different from the monster organ in the Royal Albert Hall, they did have a degree of poke and character which the chamber instrument lacked. (Paul McCreesh has made some interesting Bach recordings using small scale forces and with organs of the type Bach would have known).

What of the performance itself, niggles apart? Well, musically it was of a very high order. The choir of the English Concert were in fine voice and ranged from the fast brilliance of the "Cum Sancto Spirito" of the Gloria to the stunning vocal control of the "Et Incarnatus" and "Crucifixus" from the Credo. Whilst they could conjure up vocal substance in the large scale passages, they moved like a far smaller body in the fast moving ones.

Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson were both elegantly fluent as the soprano soloists. Iestyn Davies brought clarity and a fabulous sense of line to his solos, projecting the vocal line with ease without ever forcing. He finished with a performance of exquisite beauty in the Agnus Dei. Ed Lyon was a relaxed and beautifully lyric tenor, with a good freedom in the upper register but still plenty of character. Matthew Rose was impressive in his first aria but appeared to be having problems in his second.

The orchestra were on similar stunning form, providing a series of superb instrumental obbligatos as well as sympathetic and characterful tutti playing. They didn’t peck at the notes as some period bands do, giving the music a far greater sense of line and shape.

This was a performance full of good moments. But, in the final choral Dona Nobis pacem, Bicket ensured that the chorus returned to the same understated manner as the opening Kyrie and that made me realise that there was something that I had been missing. For me, there wasn’t a strong sense of the spiritual. The performances were highly musical, intelligent realisations of the individual movements, but the whole did not coalesce into the sort of spiritual journey which Bach intended. Friends sitting behind me thought otherwise and found the performance both beautiful and moving, so each takes different things from such an event.

Performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor in the Royal Albert Hall is inevitably going to mean that decisions have to be taken. But whilst I question some aspects of the performance from Bicket and the English Concert, there is no doubt that we witness music making of a very high order.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):