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

London Handel Festival: Handel's Faramondo at the RCM

Written at a time when both his theatrical business and physical health were in a bad way, Handel’s Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1738, fared badly and sank rapidly into obscurity where it languished until the late-twentieth century.

Brahms A German Requiem, Fabio Luisi, Barbican London

Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").at the Barbican Hall, London.

Káťa Kabanová in its Seattle début

The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017

Applications are now open for the Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017. This biennial competition was first launched in 2013 to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, and is aimed at identifying the finest emerging young opera singers currently working in the UK.

Festival Mémoires in Lyon

Each March France's splendid Opéra de Lyon mounts a cycle of operas that speak to a chosen theme. Just now the theme is Mémoires -- mythic productions of famed, now dead, late 20th century stage directors. These directors are Klaus Michael Grüber (1941-2008), Ruth Berghaus (1927-1996), and Heiner Müller (1929-1995).

Handel's Partenope: surrealism and sensuality at English National Opera

Handel’s Partenope (1730), written for his first season at the King’s Theatre, is a paradox: an anti-heroic opera seria. It recounts a fictional historic episode with a healthy dose of buffa humour as heroism is held up to ridicule. Musicologist Edward Dent suggested that there was something Shakespearean about Partenope - and with its complex (nonsensical?) inter-relationships, cross-dressing disguises and concluding double-wedding it certainly has a touch of Twelfth Night about it. But, while the ‘plot’ may seem inconsequential or superficial, Handel’s music, as ever, probes the profundities of human nature.

Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall

The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.

La Tragédie de Carmen at San Diego

On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).

Kasper Holten's farewell production at the ROH: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.

AZ Musicfest Presents Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci

The dramatic strength that Stage Director Michael Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot.

English Touring Opera Spring 2017: a lesson in Patience

A skewering of the preening pretentiousness of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes of the late-nineteenth century, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience outlives the fashion that fashioned it, and makes mincemeat of mincing dandies and divas, of whatever period, who value style over substance, art over life.

Tara Erraught: mezzo and clarinet in partnership at the Wigmore Hall

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught demonstrated a relaxed, easy manner and obvious enjoyment of both the music itself and its communication to the audience during this varied Rosenblatt Series concert at the Wigmore Hall. Erraught and her musical partners for the evening - clarinettist Ulrich Pluta and pianist James Baillieu - were equally adept at capturing both the fresh lyricism of the exchanges between voice and clarinet in the concert arias of the first half of the programme and clinching precise dramatic moods and moments in the operatic arias that followed the interval.

Opera Across the Waves

This Sunday the Metropolitan Opera will feature as part of the BBC Radio 3 documentary, Opera Across the Waves, in which critic and academic Flora Willson explores how opera is engaging new audiences. The 45-minute programme explores the roots of global opera broadcasting and how in particular, New York’s Metropolitan Opera became one of the most iconic and powerful producers of opera.

Premiere: Riders of the Purple Sage

On February 25, 2017, in Tucson and on the following March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona Opera presented its first world premiere, Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn’s Riders of the Purple Sage.

English Touring Opera Spring 2017: a disappointing Tosca

During the past few seasons, English Touring Opera has confirmed its triple-value: it takes opera to the parts of the UK that other companies frequently fail to reach; its inventive, often theme-based, programming and willingness to take risks shine a light on unfamiliar repertory which invariably offers unanticipated pleasures; the company provides a platform for young British singers who are easing their way into the ‘industry’, assuming a role that latterly ENO might have been expected to fulfil.

A Winter's Tale: a world premiere at English National Opera

The first production of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera, based upon Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is clearly a major event in English National Opera’s somewhat trimmed-down season. Wigglesworth, who serves also as conductor and librettist, professes to have been obsessed with the play for more than twenty years, and one can see why The Winter’s Tale, with its theatrical ‘set-pieces’ - the oracle scene, the tempest, the miracle of a moving statue - and its grandiose emotions, dominated as the play is by Leontes’ obsessively articulated, over-intellectualized jealousy, would invite operatic adaptation.

Wexford Festival Opera announces details of 2017 Festival

Today, Wexford Festival Opera announced the programme and principal casting details for the forthcoming 2017 festival. Now in its 66th year, this internationally renowned festival will run over an extended 18-day period, from Thursday, 19 October to Sunday, 5 November.

Matthias Goerne : Mahler Eisler Wigmore Hall

A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London. Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony. Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing.

Oxford Lieder Festival 2017: Gustav Mahler and fin-de-siècle Vienna

Gustav Mahler and fin-de-siècle Vienna will be the focus of the Oxford Lieder Festival (13-28 October 2017), exploring his influences, contemporaries and legacy. Mahler was a dominant musical personality: composer and preeminent conductor, steeped in tradition but a champion of the new. During this Festival, his complete songs with piano will be heard, inviting a fresh look at this ’symphonic’ composer and the enduring place of song in the musical landscape.

A Merry Falstaff in San Diego

On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.

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):