Switzerland Bach: Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & chor (conductor Ton Koopman); Yetzabel Arias Fernandez (soprano), Maarten Engeltjes (alto/countertenor), Tilman Lichdi (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass); chorusmaster Frank Markowitsch, Tonhalle, Zurich(JR)
Bach: Mass in B minor
It’s hard being an expat Brit singing in a choir in central Europe. We are constantly urged to sing Dis and Des, Gis and Ges, H and – most confusingly Es! At least we recognise Bach’s Messe in h moll is what Anglo-Saxons know as the B minor Mass.
The Netherlands is currently triumphing at the World Cup and their musical counterparts are no less impressive: Ton Koopman has conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra over the years but the Zurich Festival (Festspiele) have given him the opportunity to bring his renowned Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir to Zurich.
The choir consisted men who were mixed in age, the women were younger. I counted, in all, 25: 9 sopranos, 5 altos (3 of them countertenors!), 5 tenors and 6 basses. Even though I know the tenor part best (I sang the work a year ago) I found I was constantly listening to the countertenors who made a wonderful, distinctive and of course authentic sound. The orchestra consisted of 5 first violins, 4 seconds, 2 violas, 2 cellos, a bass, two flutes, three oboes, a couple of bassoons, a horn, cymbal and drums. Ton Koopman led the arias from an organ; the chorus was accompanied by another organist. That worked well.
As expected from these forces, the performance was exemplary. At no stage did I feel the tempi were anything other than spot on. It did take me a few minutes to get used to the sound of scratchy strings and weedy woodwind, but it soon sounded utterly natural.
The Kyrie’s opening was well rehearsed and made one sit up. Throughout the soloists were well matched, not sourced individually by some agency but hand-picked by Koopman to blend together. Only the Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez did I find rather too sultry a voice for this work.
The Gloria was glorious: valve-less trumpets did not let the side down and hard timpani always make their mark. The chorus revelled in their choruses, all swaying gently showing they were fully involved.
The tenor does not have much to sing in the work, but Tilman Lichdi had a warm tone and strong voice. A fine countertenor, Maarten Engeltjes, took the alto part, the rich bass Klaus Mertens can be found on Koopman’s recording of the work.
The challenging entries such as at “Et resurrexit”, “Ex exspecto” and “Osanna” were all consummately executed and each section finished absolutely together, which given fast speeds was quite a feat. “Et resurrexit” was especially exhilarating.
The orchestra impressed all round, especially the principal flautist and the player of the valve-less horn. At the close every head was bobbing away to Bach’s glorious melodies.
I have one quibble which has nothing to do with the music: the choir admittedly has a lot to sing and chose to drink from water bottles in between choruses, often during arias. I found that distracting and feel it should be reserved for the end of sections when the orchestra is retuning. The soloists were more discreet.
Koopman shows no sign of slowing down and we can all be thankful for that. He is a distinguished member of that elite band of conductors (many now in their 70s) who revere authentic performances: I do hope there are plenty of younger replacements in the pipeline.
After two hours of Bach, the audience’s response was rapturous.