Speed Counts

 United StatesUnited States Bach, Handel, Mozart: Miah Persson (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Frédéric Antoun (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Labadie (conductor), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (choral director), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 7.11.2013 (SSM)

J. S. Bach: Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51
Handel: “Let the Bright Seraphim,” from the oratorio Samson, HWV 57
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 (Completed by Robert D. Levin, 1993)

No amount of research will ever be able to answer definitively the question of how fast or slowly a Baroque score should be played. Since there were no metronomes in Bach’s day, even if a score is annotated we can’t be sure about the speed. When the tempo is indicated (Adagio, Allegro) or a movement is designated a dance (Sarabande, Gigue), then the conductor should be more circumspect about the tempos that he takes. But how fast is an Allegro? How slow is a Saraband? In the case of songs and arias, the words themselves determine the pacing. “Haste, haste to town” should be played fast; “When I am laid in earth” would, of course, be slow.

The most sensible approach is to take a tempo that allows every musical line to be heard as clearly as possible; respects the composer’s phrasing; and isn’t so fast that the instrumentalist is not confidant and comfortable with the score. The latter is very important in a small orchestra where mistakes, miscues or misinterpretations can’t always be covered by another musician.

At previous concerts conducted by Labadie, an early music specialist, I admired his ability to draw from modern orchestras a sound closer in color to his own period instrument group, Les Violons du Roy. Since the orchestra here consisted of members of the New York Philharmonic playing modern instruments, the simplest way to emulate an early music sound is to reduce vibrato. As far as I could tell, this method was used for the two Baroque pieces on the program, but this time it wasn’t enough: the fast arias were too fast and the slower ones lacked warmth.

Bach’s Cantata No. 51 is a showcase for all involved, but specifically for the soprano and trumpet soloist. The soprano needs to be comfortable in the wide range of middle C to high C. The trumpeter has to have complete control of his instrument and needs to match the soprano in long stretches of sixteenth notes. The first aria has a fiendishly difficult trill on the G above the staff, and Matthew Muckey performed brilliantly. He used a modern trumpet designed to ease the difficulty of playing these notes; the trumpet used in Bach’s time was valveless and required the trumpeter to use only his lips and tongue to produce notes (embouchure).

Miah Persson’s voice, accurate enough in all ranges, was too thin to overcome the unforgiving acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. The recitative in this cantata is one of Bach’s most poignant, and I missed the emotional impact that I’ve felt in other performances. This held true for the Handel aria as well. I know Ms. Persson has appeared in many opera productions, and I wonder if she toned down her “opera voice” and turned up her “white voice.”

There are enough substantive changes in Robert Levin’s version of Mozart’s Requiem that we should approach it the same way we approach Bruckner’s symphonies. Brucknerites don’t talk about his Second or Seventh symphonies but his Carregan Edition Second Symphony or his Haas Edition Seventh Symphony. The same should be done for Mozart’s Requiem whose various editions began with Franz Xaver Süssmayr at the dying Mozart’s bedside. The overall accomplishment of Levin’s changes is to make the work seem more like Mozart’s other great Masses through the addition of colors and contrasts not completely fleshed out in the traditional score. Like the many valid revisions of Bruckner’s symphonies, this version seems equally acceptable and can stand on its own.

The soloists and chorus gave the Requiem a strong reading. Stephanie Blythe demonstrated what an “opera voice” should sound like in Avery Fisher Hall: she sang with enough strength to overcome the Hall’s weak acoustics. Tenor Frédéric Antoun had a particularly distinguished voice.

Stan Metzger

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