The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Unspeakably Gorgeous

I had been looking forward all year to hearing Phillipe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Ghent perform Bach's St. John Passion, and the day finally arrived on Sunday. It was everything I had hoped, a flawless performance of an incredible masterpiece.

First, I don't really understand why the St. John gets so much less attention and performance than the Matthew. The Matthew is great, of course, with some typically wonderful Bach. But I've always thought it's overlong, with some arias that are overlong by themselves and somewhat boring, by Bach standards. And these long, frequently occurring arias break up the drama of the recitatives and crowd choruses. I leave a performance of a Matthew feeling impressed but somewhat exhausted. I left the performance on Sunday trembling with awe (at Bach's genius and the talent of the performers -- no religious affinity here, although appreciating the religious meaning is important to appreciating the full impact of the music, just like the drama in an opera).

As I've grown to expect from this conductor and ensemble, the sound was just so beautiful. The chorus has a creamy, perfectly blended sound, even in relatively small numbers. The orchestra sounded terrific. The sound was smooth but the dramatic and rhythmic pulse was always there (in this respect, I think Herreweghe is sort of the Herbert von Karajan of early music). The soloists were all terrific, even though two of them -- the soprano and the bass who sings the arias -- were last-minute replacements. Most outstanding was Christoph Prégardien in the key role of the Evangelist. He had a wonderful sound but also sang with great expressiveness. And the recitatives were not done perfunctorily, but with great dramatic sensitivity. For instance, when the evangelist's line finished with, "and Jesus said" or the like, Konrad Jarnot as Jesus jumped in with his line while Prégardien was still beautifully tapering the phrase. And the crowd choruses were of course both thrilling and sung with pinpoint accuracy.

Anthony Tommasini, my favorite critic at the Times, had a couple comments about the performance I found a bit odd. First, he compares Herreweghe to Furtwangler in both style and tempi. Herreweghe's tempi might on average be slightly slower than most period groups, the difference between him and, say, John Eliot Gardiner in this regard is far smaller than between him and Furtwangler. In Sunday's performance, the speeds were actually quite typical for period performance, very similar to Gardiner's recording, which I'm familiar with from many listenings. The tempi were occasionally slightly slower than on the Gardiner, but they were also slightly faster in a few other numbers. Mostly, I hardly noticed a difference. Furtwangler, on the other hand...

Second, Tommasini says that the voices in the chorus "lacked uniformity." He doesn't really mean this as a criticism, but to my ears, the chorus sounded just as perfectly blended and unified as it does in recordings. I was actually surprised about the extent to which this was the case, considering the clear acoustics of Alice Tully and small size of the chorus' forces.

Third, he cites a "very troubled moment" when the soprano (Johannette Zomer) and the orchestra drifted apart, and some "inexplicable lapses with shaky intonation." I did notice when the soprano and the orchestra got disconnected, but I thought it was very slight and didn't last very long. I didn't notice any shaky intonation; might Tommasini just not be accustomed to the tuning of the original instruments? That might also help explain his odd contrasts of Herreweghe versus other original-instruments conductors. Or maybe I just didn't catch it. I was too entranced by Bach's genius.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The key missing word from that Tommasini quote:
Though the 16 voices of the splendid choir were beautifully blended, there was no sense of enforced uniformity in the robust and flexible singing.

Sometimes the online version does seem to end up slightly different than the printed version though.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Music Guy said...

I checked the online archive and it does say "enforced." I probably just glossed over this adjective. I'm not sure how the genesis of the uniformity changes the sound or effect of it, but that's a fair point.

7:55 PM  

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