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Reviews

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02 Dec 2016

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

Philippe Jaroussky: German baroque cantatas at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Philippe Jaroussky

Photo credit: Simon Fowler

 

What connects these two events? Well, on both occasions I found myself contemplating the issue of the staging of musical works not originally intended for theatrical presentation. Unknowing was powerful and immediate drama, but I found the layered narratives an unnecessary and sometimes diverting distraction from the arguments articulated by Schumann’s musical journey. In contrast, while we have become familiar with stagings of Bach’s cantatas and Passions, Jaroussky spurned any sense of the ‘theatrical’: his approach was contemplative, all about sound rather than text. I was stimulated and intrigued by both performances. And, if I didn’t come to any conclusions about the relationship between spirituality, sacred drama and human theatre in Bach’s liturgical works, I certainly relished the mastery and musicianship which Jaroussky displayed.

Jaroussky recently released a recording of these German baroque cantatas for the Warner/Erato label. On the disc he is accompanied by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under their violinist-director Petra Müllejans, with whom he performed this repertory at the end of 2015, at Berlin’s historic Konzerthaus where he was artist-in-residence during the 2015-16 season.

On this occasion, however, Jaroussky was partnered by Le Concert de la Loge, the small period instrument ensemble founded by violinist Julien Chauvin in 2015 with the ambition of reviving the renowned 18th-century orchestra, Le Concert de La Loge Olympique. The ensemble’s homogenous tonal warmth, lively zest, eloquent phrasing and sure sense of style were evident in the opening work, Telemann’s Ouverture burlesque in Bb TWV55:B8. The characteristic dotted rhythms of first, slow movement of the overture were not overly exaggerated or taut, giving a relaxed breadth to the expansive lines. Transitions between contrasting sections were fluent; animation was provided by some punchy harpsichord playing from Takashi Watanabe. Chauvin directed with a strong sense of the dramatic pulse of the music, displaying stylistic knowledge that was never pedantically applied. At times the vibrato was full and rich. Throughout the evening the obbligato parts were faultlessly executed and emotionally persuasive.

Telemann’s cantata, Die stille Nacht followed. This six-movement work deals with Christ’s agonies in the garden of Gethsemane: three recitatives set the scene, alongside two arias for Jesus, and there is a concluding aria for a narrator who invites all to contemplate Christ’s sacrifice.

The opening accompanied recitative was sombre and still: ‘Die stille Nacht umschloss den Kreis der Erden’ (The silence of night surrounded Earth’s sphere). Organ pulses and a sort of brushed staccato bow stroke from the strings grew from quiet intimations to darker, weightier - even menacing - throbs, as Jaroussky sang of the ‘Terrifying night’ which ‘causes my spirit to languish in fear’. At times the countertenor did consciously enliven the text, for example when referring to Jesus’s grief in Garden of Gethsemane - here, there was an intensification which hinted at anguish and uncertainty. But, on the whole Jaroussky seemed more concerned to recount events with objectivity, creating a distance between the experience described in the text and its deliverer. My guest for the evening was a German speaker and she remarked that while the German text was fairly lucidly declaimed, the light agility of Jaroussky’s diction seemed very ‘French’ and did not convey the heavy iambic tread of the texts.

There was a strong sense of structural coherence though. A string diminuendo at the close of the accompanied recitative led expressively into Christ’s first aria, ‘Ich bin betrübt bis in den Tod’ (I am saddened unto death). Jaroussky here demonstrated the qualities that we would enjoy throughout the evening. His countertenor is flexible and relaxed; he can move through a wide tessitura without the slightest hint of strain, and leaps agilely between registers - the top is pure and clean, the chest register firm and full. He has an instinctive feeling for the musical phrasing, whether he is racing effortlessly through coloratura passagework or gliding through a lament. Jaroussky’s immaculate technique truly revealed the inventiveness of Telemann’s melodic gift.

That said, I felt that more attention might have been paid to the meaning of the text. Text repetitions did not, in any profound way, accrue meaning or intensity. Similarly, the ensuing recitative, accompanied by organ, was wonderfully crystalline but there was little sense of the ‘awful pain’ (überhäuftem Schmerz) with which Christ ‘wrung his holy hands’. It was as if a celestial host had descended to deliver an objective account to mankind: a sermon in music, rather than an allegorical narrative. Indeed, reporting on the 2015 Berlin performance mentioned above, the Berliner Tagesspiegel marvelled at what it termed ‘the voice of an angel’.

Jesus’s aria, ‘Mein Vater! Wenn dir’s wohlgefällt’ (My Father! If it so please you), is described in the preceding recitative as a ‘prayer with ardent sighs’; but, less than its ardency, this movement was notable for the beautiful ease with which Jaroussky traversed the melodic line, mimicking the flute’s legato introductory phrases. The silky thread of the vocal line was, however, enriched and enlivened at times by a slight lifting or sharpening of the vocal colour. The final aria was a joyful appeal to ‘children of men’ and ‘stubborn sinners’ to witness Christ’s agony, the bright floridity of ‘heißen Höllenglut’ mimicking the intensity of the ‘burning flames of hell’.

The overture from Telemann’s St Matthew Passion (1754) preceded the second of the cantatas by the composer. The sighing gestures of the organ and strings conjured a lamenting mood, before an organ solo which alternated improvisatory elaborations with poignant suspensions and harmonic explorations led into Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen (Jesus breathes his last).

A meditation on the moment of Christ’s death, the title aria begins sparsely, the gentle upper strings and oboe fading wistful as Jesus closes his eyes, ‘Ach, er schließt die Augen schon’. Again I would have liked more direct and pronounced sentiment, and more variety of vocal colour, in the secco recitatives. ‘Erbarmenswürd’ger Blick!’ (Pitiful sight!) is a wonderful and terrible phrase, which should shudder with fearful awe.

But, the first aria, ‘Mein liebster Heiland’ (My dearest Saviour) bloomed with the joy of devotion and faith, enhanced by the delightful duet for violin and oboe; the slow tread of the continuo was reinforced by the double bass’s dry pizzicato. The concluding ‘Darauf freuet sich mein Geist’ (My spirit rejoices that one day) showcased Jaroussky’s easeful mellifluousness, as he streamed through the long running passages, the tone warm, even and sustained. The repetitions of ‘freuet’, rejoice, danced with freedom and bliss, supported by emotive surges in the strings. Vocal leaps provided flashes of eternal light.

After the interval, the performers turned from Telemann to J.S. Bach, beginning with an exciting performance of the Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, which was led in accomplished, articulate fashion by flautist Tami Krausz. Dynamic contrasts created animation and drama. Each of the movements, proceeding segue, had a sharply defined mood: the Rondeau was airily bowed, the Sarabande had stature. I was impressed by the expressiveness of Jérôme Huille’s phrasing in the dialogue for cello and flute in the Polonaise, while Krausz breezed lightly through the almost uncontainable effusions of the Badinerie.

Bach’s earliest cantatas date from his years in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, but it was when he arrived in Leipzig in late May 1723, to take up his position at the Thomaskirche, that he became required to perform a cantata each Sunday and feast day that corresponded to the scripture readings of the week.

‘Ich habe genug’ dates from 1727. It is a monologue, a first-person declaration of resignation and acceptance. Dramatically static, it is perfectly suited to Jaroussky’s poised demeanour, portraying as it does a single state of mind: weariness of mortal life and yearning for the world to come.

There is some development of feeling though. Jaroussky conveyed a sadness and emotional distance in the opening statement, ‘It is enough’, with just the slightest of frissons marking the rising ornament which colours ‘habe’. The oboe’s tender ministrations blended beautifully with the fluid vocal line. The change of key for the second half of the aria was accompanied by an increased sense of urgency, ‘Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt’ (my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart), and the growing impetus towards the after-life was reflected in Jaroussky’s wonderfully relaxed extended melisma, ‘I would now, even today, gladly (mit Freuden) leave this world’.

‘Schlummert ein’ (Close in sleep) was the highlight of the evening. Anguish and dismay were wholly becalmed in this lullaby of certainty and peace. The manner in which Jaroussky held the sustained notes at the start and end of phrases deliciously aloft was both startling and wonderful. The B-section of the aria was especially lyrical while the augmentation of the da capo repeat was the epitome of taste and elegance, the ornamentation taking Jaroussky’s voice to higher realms which he scaled with beatific purity.

Despite the dissonances with which the recitative ‘Mein Gott! wenn kömmt das schöne: Nun!’ begins (My God, when wilt Thou utter that fair word: Now!), Jaroussky refrained from injecting urgency into the command, holding back the energy until the joyous final aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’ (I look forward to my death) which danced freely though not without emotional weight.

The aria cadences with a tierce de Picardie, and here the major chord conveyed hope. Death is not something to be feared, nor is it a farewell: death, the performers seemed to be reassuring us, is the beginning of something - something mysterious perhaps, but something new and eternal.

And, so, fittingly, two encores followed: first, an aria from Telemann’s 1716 Passion oratorio Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte Jesus which sets a meditative text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes; and then an aria from Bach’s cantata Freue dich, erlöste Schar BWV30, ‘Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder’, which again allowed flautist Tami Krausz to shine.

Claire Seymour

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Le Concert de la Loge - Julien Chauvin, director/violin.

Telemann: Ouverture burlesque in B flat major TWV55:B8, Cantata: Die stille Nacht TWV1:364, Overture from St Matthew Passion, Cantata: Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen TWV1:983.
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor BWV1067, Ich habe genug BWV82.

Wigmore Hall, London; 1st December 2016.

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