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Ionarts-at-Large: BRSO in Bach & Mendelssohn Cantatas

If you have a choir to show off—as Bavarian Radio does—then that dictates program choices that would otherwise never come up: Who would ever hire a chorus—with all the financial, artistic, and logistical challenges—to perform a Bach Cantata (a completley unknown one, at that) and Felix Mendelssohn B.’s Walpurgisnacht Cantata?! Well, the BR not only has its own chorus, but it might well be argued that it is—ahead even of the Symphony Orchestra—the true jewel among the Bavarian Radio’s musical bodies.

Especially with conductors whose forté lies in handling choral works, it makes plain sense to assign them work that couples orchestra and chorus. Thomas Hengelbrock—MD Designate of the NDRSO, the northern public broadcast orchestra-sibling of the BRSO—is one such conductor. Two years after his last appearance with the BRSO he was back (appropriately dressed, this time) for this set of two concerts on the last Thursday and Friday of February.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, BWV 206 et al.,
Rilling / GK&BCS / C.Schäfer, M.Volle et al.

available at Amazon
F.Mendelssohn B., Walpurgisnacht et al.,
Harnoncourt / COE / T.Hampson, R.Pape et al.

The Cantata BWV 206—Schleicht, spielende Wellen und murmelt gelinde! (“Glide, playful waves, and murmur gently!”)—praises Augustus III, King of Poland, Elector of Saxony, Son of August the Strong, by way of analogy using four rivers: Elbe, Vistula, Danube, and the tiny Pleiße (Leipzig), each standing in for a political constituency; Dresden/Saxony, Poland, Austria, and Leipzig, respectively. Alas, text and story behind it are more interesting to a history major than a lover of Bach’s music or concert-audience; it’s the music—of properly royal splendor with trumpets and timpani—that counts, and it’s excellent. If skipping most of Bach’s secular cantatas doesn’t usually mean sacrificing much, musically, because he was in the habit of cannibalizing those works for other compositions, BWV 206 has an exclusive claim to its music. In other words, it needs to be heard to be heard.

The title isn’t indicative of the cantata’s mood incidentally; after the opening titular lines, the author changes his mind about the river’s desired velocity and adds: “No, wait… rush rapidly!” And except for the very opening, it is a lively work, with buoyant grandeur and appropriately full bodied in the BRSO’s precise, crisp, easy-on-the-vibrato fashion and a chorus of about 40 singers.

Bach didn’t call it a cantata either, but a “Dramma per musica”, except that with the sole protagonists being four rivers, and those engaged solely in toadying the royal patron on his birthday, there’s hardy little drama to be had. The arias for bass (James Rutherford, Vistula), tenor (Steve Davislim, Elbe), mezzo (Elisabeth Kulman, Danube), and soprano (Dorothee Mields, Pleisse) are massive, as is the whole, forty-minute work that begins with a considerable overture and ends with a rousing chorus. Rutherford was faultless, loud, low, and unmelodic, Davislim had himself excused as being inflicted by a cold and squeaked once, to prove it. Elisbaeth Kulman was thoroughly pleasing with an immediate, raw touch, and Dorothee Mields tried, as best she could, to make herself heard with a beautifully pure, but relatively small voice.

The same can be said about the three singers (bass, tenor, mezzo) in Mendelssohn’s large orchestral cantata “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht”, except that Davislim seemed to have recovered at intermission and came back with a surprisingly clear and beaming voice, while Rutherford veered towards belting out his part as if it was Sprechgesang. The chorus was its usual splendid self, only the cameos by a tenor and a bass for small solo parts were a letdown. Berlioz was a big fan of the work when its revised version premiered, and it’s not difficult to see why: After a beginning that clearly betrays the composer of the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Second (Choral) Symphony, the wild climax has a frantic, operatic touch that—at least on this night—seemed to include little splashes that wouldn’t been completely out of place in… Bizet.

Even if the cantata isn’t an outright scorcher, the performance was rousing enough to make you believe so for the duration of the evening—the ovations were considerable… but then they always are when the chorus, the apple of the locals’ ears, is performing.


Renaud Loranger said...

Hengelbrock is one those conductors I don't hear often enough. I have the fondest memories of a Gluck Orfeo in Paris a couple of seasons back. He can indeed work wonders with a choir.

Meanwhile, the Nagano-led Walpurgisnacht (on Farao) lies on my table - almost menacingly so. One more item on the "long overdue listening" list. We'll see.

jfl said...

I was at the Nagano Walpurgisnacht, actually...

Just remembered today when I saw the CD in a shop.

jfl said...

let me know what you think of the Schumann...

("...Rarely played, too, is Schumann’s “Der Königssohn” op.116. But here the reason for rarity may lie principally in the quality of the work; not Schumann’s best, to put it kindly. I doubt even Christian Thielmann could salvage this one, but in the Schumann year we’ll let kindness reign and hope that the recording made at the event—very closely miked, I hope—will be help the interested few make up their own mind."