Elegant Bach from Andreas Scholl at the Barbican

05/02/2012

   J. S. Bach: Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Giorgio Paronuzzi (harpsichord), Kammerorchesterbasel, Barbican, London, 3.2.2012 (GDn)

Sinfonia from Cantata ‘Ich steh met einem Fuss im Grab’ BWV156
Cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ BWV82
Keyboard Concerto no.5 in F minor BWV1056
Cantata ‘Gott soll allein mein Herze haben’ BWV169

Most countertenors have their detractors. Singing falsetto really brings out the idiosyncrasies in a voice, and singers are routinely accused of sounding too girly, too aggressive, too nasal, or just too damn weird. Andreas Scholl is the exception. The purity of his voice and the sophistication of his interpretations seem to result in admiration from all quarters. He’s not one to rest on his laurels though, and the programme he is currently touring with the Kammerorchesterbasel (in period instrument mode) is as a tough sing. It includes two Bach cantatas, a well-known favourite, Ich habe genug, which pits him against fine recorded versions from almost every voice type, and the lesser-known Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, a long and emotionally involved work that would test the stamina of any singer.

The two halves of the programme each highlighted an instrumental soloist, initially in a solo work and then as obbligatist in a cantata. In the first half, the oboist Kerstin Kamp performed the Sinfonia from cantata BWV156 before accompanying Scholl in the glorious outer movements of Ich habe genug. Her performance was proficient but rarely excelled. The three-keyed Baroque oboe is a tricky instrument to tame. Intonation is a problem on many notes, sounding the upper register takes real effort, and it is very difficult to keep the tone even. Kamp clearly struggled, and nothing ever looked or sounded easy. The phrasing was elegant though, and the results were certainly musical, but tuning was a perpetual problem, and there was very little grace in her passage work.

Her duets with Scholl in Ich habe genug worked satisfactorily, but by this point the singer was clearly the centre of attention. The cantata, which I’m assuming he sang in Bach’s alto arrangement, isn’t ideal for his range and often goes lower than he is comfortable with (at least when in countertenor mode; I understand he has a fine baritone when required). The oboe, by contrast, struggled at the top, every time the music went into the upper register, so it was really only the mid-range music that showed the soloists at their best.

Up until the last cantata, the orchestra took the role of a backing band. The balance was generally good, but only because the strings were able to take the dynamics right down to virtually nothing when accompanying. As a result, when tutti codas ended movements, the orchestra seemed to appear out of nowhere to take the centre stage.

The instrumental soloist for the second half was Giorgio Paronuzzi, chamber organist in the continuo group (which also included lute, two cellos, double bass and bassoon) for three numbers and harpsichord soloist for the F minor concerto. Of all Bach’s concertante harpsichord works, this concerto must be the one that is most often played on the piano, so it was refreshing to hear it on its original instrument for a change. Again, the balance was impressive, and although the strings often played almost impossibly quietly, they always seemed at the ideal level to support the solo instrument.

Paronuzzi sat more comfortably behind the organ than he did the harpsichord, and he played the concerto more as a continuo accompanist than a soloist. Runs and florid passages seemed to take him by surprise, as if he was processing figured bass as he went on. On the plus side, this gave his performance an impressive sense of spontaneity, especially the ornaments. The reading was brisk, surprisingly so in the Largo. The pizzicato in the strings and staccato bass line from the soloist highlighted some ensemble problems in the orchestra, but nothing too serious.

The last piece on the programme was by far the best. Parnouzzi left the stage as a soloist at the end of the concerto and then immediately returned as part of the continuo group to play the chamber organ. In fact, as soon as he sat down the spotlight returned to him, as the first movement of Gott soll allein mein Herze haben is a Sinfonia with a prominent organ solo. He made a much more impressive job of this movement, much freer and more lyrical. Similarly, the rest of the orchestra suddenly found their stride in this cantata. In all the preceding works, the strings had given reserved and dispassionate readings of their accompanying textures. But now everybody on the stage suddenly seemed to find their enthusiasm. Andreas Scholl can always be relied upon to give emotional and involving interpretations, but for this last cantata, everybody on the stage seemed equally committed.

Almost all of the cantata’s seven movements involve the soloist, and it is a long cantata too, making this a real test of stamina. But Scholl was unfazed. The control he exercises over his tone is extraordinary, and despite the evident technical challenges, the overriding impression was always of sheer beauty and elegance. The tessitura of this cantata regularly allowed him to show off that crystal clear top register of his, and the poetry of the libretto sounded all the more elegant for his precise articulation.

The cantata ends with a chorale, which was a bit tricky given that the orchestra hadn’t brought a choir with them from Switzerland. The solution? The players sang it instead. The results were ‘congregational’ at best, and this would have been a poor way to end the show, had it not been for a spirited encore, Schlage doch BWV53, complete with glockenspiel, and a last few minutes to enjoy Andreas Scholl singing at his very best.

Gavin Dixon

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