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27.3.08

Ionarts at Large: Bach in Naarden


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.Matthew Passion (II),
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics




available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.Matthew Passion (I),
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics



available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics




available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.John Passion,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics




available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics


The little Dutch medieval fortress town of Naarden, completely surrounded by a wall and moat, was the first stop of my Easter Pilgrimage of St.Matthew Passions and Parsifals and it was a highlight unlikely to be topped by successive Matthew Passions this year or, perhaps, any year.

Since 1921 the Matthew Passion is performed at the Grote Kerk (“Great”, or “Large Church”) in Naarden. The Nederlandse Bachvereniging is responsible for the performance. That name and their current director Jos van Veldhoven are familiar to me from their recordings on Channel Classics. Their Mass in B-minor from last year not only made it onto my best-of-2007 list but has quickly become a favorite version.

High expectations were hardly disappointed. While I was not as moved and grabbed as I always hoped for, that might have been due to recent overexposure. It was in any case so good – so exceptionally good – that the delight it brought made up fully for this.

From the first notes on, Veldhoven and his forces (two orchestras with altogether ten violins, each, a viola, one cello, one double bass, two traverse flutes, two oboes, a recorder, continuo organ, and assoon each, and a theorbo, viola da gamba, and harpsichord) established this rendition as superior. The ensemble work was perfect with all six violins of the first orchestra playing, breathing, and living the music as one. The tone of this HIP (Historically Informed Performance) group sweet and sonorous like one could hardly expect from an indulgently romantic Viennese group, much less an original instrument band.

Johannes Leertouwer’s violin solo (“Erbarme Dich…”) was filled with warmth, a light vibrato on held notes, perfectly in tune and proved altogether better and more accurate than anything I have ever heard, say: Pinchas Zukerman do lately. The following duo with alto Matthew White (pleasantly masculine sounding, near his limits in the upper register but never of that whiney, namby-pamby quality that turns so many ears off counter tenors) had me in awe of the musical excellence. Antoinette Lohman’s solo for the opposing camp of violins was a study in contrast to Leertouwer’s mellifluous, sweet sound: Very engaged, wiry, agile, and energetic.

The boys’ choir employed for the chorals consisted of but three trebles. They may have been nervous, but either need not have been – or perhaps that nervousness actually aided their pinpoint accuracy. I have had my share of exposure to boys’ choir singing – active and passively – and I don’t think I heard three voices so together and accurate. In the generous but appropriately dry acoustic of the Grote Kerk they produced a sonorous, even voluptuous sound that I would not have thought possible. The fact that even the tiniest inaccuracies in their presentation were immediately audible only assured that the achievement was all theirs, not due to some unique acoustic phenomenon of the venue or their placement in front of conductor and orchestra, vis-à-vis the pulpit.

There were three, four very minor quibbles with the whole performance not worth the time or space to mention, since the overall excellence of Veldhoven’s and the Netherlands Bach Association’s achievement cannot be overstated. Of course the soloists had their part in this too: All were at least good, but next to Gerd Türk’s evangelist, Dorthee Mileds and Maria Keohane (sopranos), Matthew White and Williams Towers (countertenors), Julian Podger and Charles Daniels (tenors), and Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass), it was Andrew Foster-Williams whose Jesus stood out for his very impressive, indeed: ideal rendition.

Towers could not quite match White’s performance, but he came close in the unrestrained and unconstrained, beautifully shaped aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen…”. Türk had a few rough patches, his singing somewhere between lovely and routine, maybe both. Charles Daniels, recently heard in Koopman’s Mass in B-minor, was at the same high level of accomplishment without going beyond it – his colleague Podger rather excitedly sang the recitative “O Schmerz!” and found himself near his limits before the absolutely phenomenal, pitch-perfect oboe solo interrupted him. Dorothee Mields’ vibrato was a little heavier than I would have expected, but it was still clear and uncommonly beautiful, strong, and secure.

Ripienist Marjon Strijk’s Uxor Pilati, with an angelic ring to her strong soprano, proved on behalf of her colleagues the high quality of the choir which sang the chorales together with the soloists. The resultant group of 24 singers sounded very sizable in this venue and yet retained the clarity and precision rightly cherished in good HIP performances. Gerd Türk joined in as the finale chorale – “Wir setzten uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down with tears…“) let us back out into the clear night in Naarden, journeying back to nearby Amsterdam.


This concert was attended as part of my WETA Easter Pilgrimage.

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