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

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Hans Werner Henze Choral Music

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Bettina Smith, Norwegian Mezzo, in Songs by Fauré and Debussy

Here are five complete song sets by two of the greatest masters of French song. The performers are highly competent. I should have known, given the rave reviews that their 2015 recording of modern Norwegian songs received.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

A New Anna Moffo?: The Debut Disc of Aida Garifullina

Here is the latest CD from a major label promoting a major new soprano. Aida Garifullina is utterly remarkable: a lyric soprano who also can handle coloratura with ease. Her tone has a constant shimmer, with a touch of quick, narrow vibrato even on short notes.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017 - Winner Announced

Bampton Classical Opera is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2017 Young Singers’ Competition is mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard and the runner-up is tenor Wagner Moreira. The winner of the accompanists’ prize, a new category this year, is Keval Shah.

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):