Andreas Scholl Sings Bach in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  J. S. Bach:  Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Giorgio Paronuzzi (harpsichord), Kammerorchesterbasel. Town Hall, Birmingham, 1.2.2012 (JQ)

Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grab, BWV 156: Sinfonia
Ich habe genug, BWV 82
Concerto in F minor for Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1056
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169

Andreas Scholl and the period instrument ensemble, Kammerorchesterbasel, have a new CD out (Decca 4782733) on which Scholl sings both of the cantatas featured in this programme so the concert was, no doubt, intended to promote that disc. However, it has to be said that the artists offered the Birmingham patrons distinctly short measure. The first half of the concert lasted half an hour and the advertised programme in its entirity ended at 9.05. Given that this included an interval and some time for platform rearranging and tuning, I doubt we heard much more than an hour of music. An encore was given but this was the opening aria from BWV 82. Welcome though this was in its own terms, it was music we’d already heard once before. I know we’re supposedly “all in this together” but this seemed to me to be taking austerity a bit too far. (I don’t blame the Birmingham promoters for this, by the way; they put on the programmes they’re offered.)

The concert opened with the short Sinfonia from BWV 156. This is for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, which fell only recently. Most of Bach’s cantatas are all too rarely heard in live performance these days though, by sheer chance, I’d heard a good performance of the complete work only a few days before, in the first of a series given by local musicians in Gloucester Cathedral. On this occasion the lovely Sinfonia, with its poignant oboe solo formed an apt prelude to BWV 82, especially as the cantata followed with scarcely a break. The Sinfonia served a practical purpose too, I suspect, in that it allowed oboist Kerstin Kramp to warm up fully for her important role in the cantata.

The inclusion of Ich habe genug, BWV 82 was highly appropriate since the cantata is for the Feast of the Purification, which is celebrated on 2 February. It’s one of Bach’s most celebrated cantatas, probably because it contains not one but two magnificent arias. The opening aria, with its wonderful oboe obbligato, is surely one of the composer’s most sublime utterances and I was looking forward greatly to hearing Scholl in this music. Unfortunately, the performance didn’t quite live up to expectations for both in this aria and, more so, in the equally beautiful ‘Schlummert ein’, I found it hard to hear his voice clearly when he was singing in his lower register. I don’t believe this was the fault of the orchestra who were very obviously keeping down the volume when Scholl was singing – and the size of the ensemble was not large (3/3/2/2/1 plus oboe and a continuo of bassoon, theorbo and organ). The problems of audibility were not confined to this cantata and as I pondered this issue during the evening I reached some tentative conclusions.

Part of the trouble may well lie in the expectations we have these days. We are so accustomed to hearing music on CD or on the radio, when microphones help the balance, that a natural balance may take us by surprise on occasion. An additional factor may have been the suitability of the venue. Birmingham Town Hall has very good acoustics but it is a fairly large building and, whatever else its Victorian architects may have had in mind when it was built they did not envisage, I suspect, a small period instrument band and one singer. Bach’s church music is essentially intimate for the most part and I would imagine that the congregation in St. Thomas’s, Leipzig would have found it easier than I did clearly to hear an ensemble of this size. I was seated where I normally sit in Town Hall, just over halfway back, and that’s normally an excellent position for hearing the performers.

It was a great disappointment that I couldn’t always hear Scholl with complete clarity for what came across was music making of high distinction. His delivery of the recitatives in BWV 82 was imaginative and in the more lightly scored passages of ‘Schlummert ein’ his singing was clear to hear and was expressive and delivered with excellent tone. The musicians imparted a nice lilt to the closing aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod’ though once again the lower lying stretches of the vocal line were hard to discern.

After the interval Giorgio Paronuzzi, the organist for the remainder of the programme, took centre stage to play the solo part in BWV 1056. Here again issues of audibility arose. In the busy figurations that characterise the solo part in the first movement Paronuzzi’s contribution was, for the most part, unclear, despite the obvious restraint on the part of his orchestral colleagues. I’m afraid the instrument was simply too slender of tone to make the necessary impact in this building. In the slow movement things went much better. Here Bach gives the soloist a melodic line and the pizzicato accompaniment is much lighter than in the outer movements. Here, at last, one could appreciate fully the quality of Paronuzzi’s playing. The energetic finale was delivered stylishly and with suitable agility by all concerned.

Finally we heard Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, for which Andres Scholl returned. This celebrated cantata is for the 18th Sunday after Trinity and, as Lyndon Jenkins pointed out in his useful programme notes, a confident tone permeates the work. It begins with a substantial Sinfonia which has a prominent organ part – Giorgio Paronuzzi in sparkling form – and the orchestral texture is enriched by no less than three oboes. This movement was performed with great verve. Scholl was on his best form of the evening in this cantata. He invested the words of his opening arioso with great meaning and was equally accomplished in the following aria – in which Paronuzzi played the demanding organ obbligato with panache. I may be wrong but I think the vocal line in this cantata tends to lie higher, in general, than in BWV 82. I’m sure that the lighter scoring helped Scholl to put across the vocal line more successfully He gave a fine account also of the second aria ’Stirb in mir’ to the accompaniment of which the players imparted a lovely lilt. At the end we had a lovely touch. Unlike BWV 82, this cantata ends with a chorale. No choir was on hand so those players who weren’t required to play – the majority – joined Scholl in singing it under his discreet direction. Surely, at this point we got a glimpse of what music making might have been like in St Thomas’s, Leipzig.

In response to warm applause Scholl gave us an encore, repeating the opening aria of BWV 82.  It would have been more generous to offer some previously unheard music. However, I had the impression that the music came over more strongly the second time around. Perhaps the musicians were more comfortable with the hall by the end of the evening. Perhaps – and this is more likely – my ears had adjusted. However, this was a night when probably those seated in the front stalls had the best of the deal.


John Quinn