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Ionarts-at-Large: The Vienna Symphony's B Minor Mass: Bach to Snooze To

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Philippe Jordan has taken on the sensible, laudable, wonderful mission of adding Bach to its regularish fare. Last year they performed the St. Matthew Passion.[1] Next season it will be the St. John Passion. And on March 19th, it was the Mass in B minor at the Vienna Konzerthaus – part of the now defunct “Osterklang” Festival of secular music associated with the Theater an der Wien (or rather: its Intendant, Roland Geyer).

In short, this Karl Richter memorial performance was an unholy snooze-fest. Mind you, there’s nothing at all wrong with Karl Richter. It’s not perhaps in line with the HIP Zeitgeist, but it’s damn good music making, which oozes out of every pore of Richter’s and his musicians and his recordings are still emotional favorites. But that’s exactly the difference: Richter oozed musicality and commitment, the Vienna Symphony, pace the hard working Philippe Jordan, did not. They looked like they were on auto-pilot, navigating the score without difficulty and achieving reasonable beauty. Only that Bach isn’t about reasonable beauty, it’s about making the music come alive.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B Minor,
L.U.Mortensen / Concerto Copenhagen
M.Keohane, J.Lunn, A.Potter, J.Kobow, P.Harvey

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B Minor,
K.Richter I / Munich Bach Choir & Orchestra
M.Stader, H.Töpper, E.Haefliger, K.Engen, D.F-D
Archiv (1961)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B Minor,
K.Richter III / Munich Bach Choir & Orchestra
U.Buckel, M.Höffgen, E.Haefliger, E.G.Schram
Archiv (Tokyo 1969)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B Minor,
J.v.Veldhoven / Netherlands Bach Society
D.Mields, J.Zomer, M.White, C.Daniels, P.Harvey
Channel Classics

During the performance, and shortly thereafter, it would have still been easy to be sidetracked by many a beautiful aspect of the performance… some of the singers, for example, and as ever the ending, which never fails to move as it ends on a high (and loud) note. But even with a little distance, the impression changed from wanting to strain for something good in it to exacerbation that Bach should ever be boring. The memory that remains—fortunately not much—is that everything was a little bit turgid (“Dona nobis pacem”), a little bit non-committal, a little bit uneven (the trumpets on “Domine Deus”), a little bit off (the horns, for one, did their best to imitate natural horns). The continuo organ made a sound like the marimba alarm on an iPhone.

Let’s get into the positive, all the same… first and foremost the singers. Camilla Tilling was dashing and joyous and glorious and sensitive to the text and especially so in the soprano-violin of the “Laudamus Te” which was made additionally intriguing as the violin obbligato was splayed Mischa Elman style[2]. Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s mezzo has a lamenting quality… a wailing tone seemingly built into it. She cut with ease through the appreciably lightly playing orchestra (“miserere nobis”) and reached the nearly 2000 assembled in the Great Hall of the Konzerthaus. Her very solid, unflappable voice is as steady as a musical freight train except with greater agility than that ill-fitting analogy would suggest.

Werner Güra was the stand-out of this very nicely assembled cast of singers. He’s a wonderfully unhurried singer with a most comfortable tenor-timbre and he never sounds pained or overly taxed. He’s baritonal in a way Fischer-Dieskau was tenoral. Authority and clever employment make his voice heard, not raw power. (Even then, there were still brief moments in which I might have liked him to try just a little less hard.) Michael Volle was on paper a splendid and suitable conclusion to the quartet of voices; shame he dialed it in, though… as if he could not have been bothered. (Just a few days earlier I heard him as a terrific (Flying) Dutchman in Munich, where he was obviously very much engaged.) Or perhaps he was still in Dutchman-mode and couldn’t help it… in any case he roared in full-on Christmas-Oratorio-goes-Wagner mode. “Lion-esque” is the best that could be said about it… but “barely” and “hollow” and “a touch frayed” were scribbled into the margins of my notes, too.

There was the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” which was racy relief as the tempos were pulled up sharply and the chorus (Wiener Singakademie) eagerly entering to get a few words in again for a rousing finale to the Mass’ first part. The Credo also had a fine clip which might have helped, but ungainly, halting moments in the chorus had individual notes emerge like single obstinate hairs from a short and slightly sloppy haircut. It looks good enough from afar but it becomes annoying when you notice them. “Et in unum Dominum” was lively and spirited… but “Et incarnatus est” suffered from a timid choral entry, instead of hushed security. Still, the steady and measured tempo here did yield Bachian beauty to the full degree and was perhaps the sole moment amid much drabness that really did get that spirit and tradition of Karl Richter right. “Et resurrexit” was subsequently exaggerated to milk the moment for contrast.

Then came a full-throttled Sanctus, perhaps with a dash of collective narcissism about the big, beautiful sound they produced added to the “holy, holy” declaration, while at the same time stopping well short of making it a no-holds barred, romantic, triple-pianissimo and ritardando-besotted performance. Now that might actually have been a lot of fun and possibly more successful, certainly a more entertaining Mass in B minor with a modern symphony orchestra in such a setting… if only the conductor had wanted to go all Malcolm Sargent on us. But he didn’t. From the Osanna to the Dona Nobis Pacem it was mostly a ho-humm, I-suppose kind-of affair… which planted, deeply, the seeds of the considerable discontent to emerge later. Quite the opposite to the Matthew Passion (to be reviewed) of the Vienna Academy Orchestra, which was something of a train-wreck as it happened, but left more memories of excitement than mishaps in its wake. Wrong notes or erratic tempos in Bach are no crime, after all. But boring Bach is a cardinal sin.

[1] There’s no ionarts review, but Bachtrack was there and Chanda VanderHart reported back, almost predictably, that “Werner Güra was a spectacular Evangelist”. She says nice but ultimately lukewarm things about the performance and gave three out of five stars.

[2] Listen to the YouTube excerpt! I didn’t mean it as a compliment in this context, admittedly, but the actual Elman playing Bach is amazingly beautiful and transcends stylistic questions with ease, after a half a dozen bars or so.


Pat B said...

Thanks for the Elman link. Normally I'm not a fan of luscious Bach -- especially in the violin concertos! -- but you're right: he makes it work. It helps that the orchestra doesn't sound huge, but Elman himself deserves much credit for somehow making that playing style not sound schmaltzy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thing, Karl Richter himself was a regular guest conductor with the Vienna Symphony - and later, less regularly, with the Philharmonic - but never in the Konzerthaus, which may be too big for Bach, anyway. Musikverein may have been a better venue this time...

And yes, Richer did conduct the Mass with the Vienna Symphony.

jfl said...

Thanks for the comments. Re: Pat. You're welcome. Almost amazing, innit?! :-)
Anonymous: Thanks for the information... I was only vaguely aware of it. I tend to overrate Richter's Bach, because I grew up with it... but I re-listened to a lot while writing the review and it still sounded very different (better) than what the VSO did on this occasion. That said, I still think it's a good idea for the VSO to do Bach... or for Jordan, for that matter. It's good for the soul and presumably they're only going to get better at it. Still sounded a much, much better than, say, Muti doing Schubert or Bruckner.

Anonymous said...

Well, that is the nice thing about online databases; unfortunately the Musikverein one only dates from 1954 on - they are adding back years at snail pace.

And yes, I love Karl Richter, not just in Bach, but everything, style be damned. There is a wonderful Bruckner 4th (not very well played, but full of his typical emotion and involvement) released in Japan, and I am curious about the Verdi Requiem, also released in Japan with the Munich Philharmonic and Gottlob Frick as bas soloist.

jfl said...

Ah, yes - I have that Bruckner with Richter. And Richter is one of the few musicians where I overcame my aversion to mixed-repertoire catch-all box sets and got (as a very thoughtful gift, actually) the "Karl Richter - a universal musician" set which contains a few gems.