Bach and Schubert Choral Works Mark Good Friday in Berlin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach and Schubert: Marlis Petersen (soprano), Katrin Wundsam (mezzo-soprano), Colin Balzer (tenor), Michael Nagy (bass). NDR Chorus (chorus master: Michael Gläser), Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Andreas Spering (conductor). Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin, 3.4.2015 (MB)

Bach – Cantata: ‘Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl’, BWV 198 (Trauerode)
Schubert – Mass in A-flat major, D 678


Mourning for the Saxon Electress, Christiane Eberhardine, ‘die Betsäule Sachsens’ (Saxony’s pillar of prayer), was deeply felt by her husband’s subjects, although neither he, nor their son, attended the funeral. Unlike Augustus the Strong, who had converted to Roman Catholicism to ascend the Polish throne, she had remained faithful to Protestantism. Protestantism thus remained faithful to her, not least in the guise of  Bach’s Trauerode, the text by Johann Christoph Gottsched, first performed in St Paul’s Church, Leipzig, in 1727. One of the touching aspects of the text is the sense of place: references to city, river, residence, and so on. Even in the Prussian capital, with a North German chorus, I could imagine myself back in Leipzig – not least since I tend always to think of that city on Good Friday, even when not attending a Passion or Parsifal.

In performance, Bach was not badly done by, although Christoph Spering might have offered greater ‘heart’ to a somewhat chilly account. The opening chorus, ‘Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl,’ was taken very fast, bur rhythms were well pointed. Here and throughout, the clarity of the NDR Chorus was beyond reproach. ‘An dir, du Fürbild großer Frauen,’ the chorus closing the first of the two parts, proved tumultuous, redolent of one of the turba choruses in the Passions. (Flutes struggled a little there, though.) The final chorus did not entirely dispel the suspicion that Spering had a train to catch, and phrasing might have been less choppy, but again, counterpoint was communicated clearly, even as the weight of harmonic meaning was lessened.

The extraordinary orchestra Bach employs made its mark, as it always does: visually as well as aurally transitional, two gambas (to the fore in ‘Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt!’) and lutes placed in the centre, the ‘modern’ orchestra surrounding them. (Hermann Scherchen’s recording is a typically provocative exploration.) The alto recitative, ‘Der Glocken bebenes Getön,’ sounded wonderful orchestrally, flutes against pizzicato violins and violas.  Flute and oboe obbligati sounded splendid in the tenor aria with which the second part opens. Once again, I was reminded of Bach’s almost modernistic exploration of instrumentation, a feature of his music to which Boulez has, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn attention. Marlis Petersen offered a keenly dramatic account of her recitatives and arias, harking back to Bach’s seventeenth-century forebears. Some might have cavilled at the evident difference of approach to vibrato, she largely eschewing it, the strings warmer, but it did not especially bother me. Katrin  Wundsam’s aria (that one with the gambas) exposed the differences in tone between different registers in her voice, but again, that was not unduly distracting, and it is partly a consequence of the particularities of Bach’s vocal writing. Colin Balzer proved the weakest of the soloists, intonation variable, and coloratura less than perfect. (The writing is difficult, but even so.) Michael Nagy navigated with great success the transitions between recitative and arioso, likewise achieving an excellent balance between declamation and the longer line.

Schubert’s choral works are, by contrast, cheerfully South German: nominally Catholic, without any obvious evidence of great belief. (Nor is there any evidence of Beethovenian struggle, despite the similarities with, and perhaps influence of, the Missa solemnis.) As one might have expected, this was not the most ‘symphonic’ of readings, but so long as one could, at least for a few minutes, put Wolfgang Sawallisch from one’s mind, a good enough account was given of the work in, the Berlin Konzerthaus notwithstanding, more church-like fashion. Strangely, given Spering’s lack of what we might call ‘Romanticism’, I was nevertheless put in mind of Bruckner and indeed twentieth-century writing. Perhaps that was in part testament to the long-lasting influence of Caecilianism. Quite why a chamber organ was used I am not entirely sure, but such seems almost to be de rigueur in ‘early music’ performances, even when a perfectly decent instrument is present in the hall.

The opening ‘Kyrie’ set the tone for much of the performance, in its strong contrast between passages for solo voices (whether individually or in ensemble) and those for chorus. The dramatic quality of the imploring ‘Christe’ solos was rather winning. Spering’s way with the ‘Gloria’ I found unduly fast and brutal, rather as if Toscanini were back with us; others will doubtless have felt differently. There were times when a greater body of strings too would have been of benefit. Spering’s conducting of the concluding fugue proved wooden too, leading to loss of much of its dynamism, though matters improved as it progressed. Again, at the opening of the ‘Credo’, although the performers (chorus and orchestra) were excellent, the conducting was four-square. The strings, however, dug in nicely upon the word ‘crucifixus’, especially important on this of all days. The closing ‘Amen’ sounded glorious – from all concerned. A well-shaped ‘Sanctus’ followed: lyrical, yet with a strong sense of underlying power. Phrasing was a bit odd in the ‘Osanna’ section, for no evident reason. The ‘Benedictus’, perhaps predictably, was taken very fast. It flowed nicely enough, but I remained unmoved. The ‘Agnus Dei’, though on the swift side, was imbued with greater feeling than earlier, although the contrast between choral and solo passages was perhaps excessive. Still, there was no doubting the prowess of the excellent chorus.

Mark Berry

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