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Ionarts-at-Large: Koopman's Stockhausen Antidote

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s SAMSTAG aus LICHT, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and Bach’s St.John Passion in five concerts in four days is a curious musical tour-de-force. An astute musical friend remarked: “That sounds like one of those combinations where each one is an antidote for the other.” Very much so. Last Friday, after the initial dose of Stockhausen (Scenes 1 & 2) it was time for Bach, from the hands of Ton Koopman, a select group of the Munich Philharmonic’s willing, and the Munich Philharmonic Chorus.

It is easy for me to become uncritical before the magnificence that is Bach, his indestructible greatness. Pointing at the chorus—lumbering through the opening and with a few sirens among the higher registers—seems petty. Merely describing the temperate tempi—appropriate for the 28 Philharmonistas (forgoing, by playing Bach, Sunday’s Mahler Fifth with Music Director-to-be, Valery Gergiev), or mentioning, casually, some sour oboe phrases—
would be pointlessly pedestrian.

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It would also be rather too harsh, because the fact is that Koopman’s Bach, shaped with veteran hands, sounded—and was—well suited for that philharmonic compromise that is needed to fill with Bach-sounds a hall that seats 2500 (maybe 1500 of them with butts, that night), and came through beautifully. The chorale “Wer hat Dich so geschlagen”, needs particular singling out for the dynamic nuance and responsiveness of the chorus.

Koopman was supported by his Jesus of choice, the ever regal Klaus Mertens, a charmingly absurd theorbo player (ahistorical accessory of choice of any continuo section worth its salt), the dependable countertenor (Maarten Engeltjes, at first reticent, with a lovely vibrato), soprano Monika Eder (on the vocally thin side), and tenor Tilman Lichdi, a sonorous, painstakingly well articulating tenor. Because it was “Bring-your-historic-instrument-to-work Day”, two violists got their viola d’amores out for the long duo accompanied by the violone and theorbo. Apart from the predictable chorale highlights, this was perhaps the loveliest moments of the performance.