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Ionarts-at-Large: Easter Concert at the Klosterneuburg Monastery

The lure that is Andreas Scholl

The imposing, beautiful Klosterneuburg Monastery sits above the Danube and watches over it as it flows around the last vineyard-covered hill to reach Vienna. On Thursday, April 6th, it hosted the third of a newly inaugurated annual Easter concerts, “Hommage à Antonio Vivaldi No.2; From Ospedale to Concordia”.

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Stabat Mater et al,
Ensemble 415, Anreas Scholl
Chiara Banchini (director),
Harmonia Mundi

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Gloria (RV588 & 589), Ostro picta,
Concerto Italiano, Sara Mingardo
Rinaldo Alessandrini (director),

But before any music was to be heard, there came a comically elaborate greeting that included a reading of the who’s-who of who attended that night, neatly categorized by and prefaced with: “from the industrial sector”, “from the realm of politics”, “from the diplomatic core”… Mention was made of whether wife and/or guests were also in attendance, or if they stood in for someone else who couldn’t attend (politicians). Provincial Austria (which absolutely includes neighboring Vienna) demands that each demi-important, self-important figure have his ego stroked. Then again, it’s hard to be too harsh about it, given the cause the concert’s proceeds were for: Namely support for the 25-year old Concordia Social Projects, dedicated to helping disadvantaged i.e. homeless children, and adolescents in Romania. A project with more than a passing parallel to what the Ospedale della Pietà did, where Vivaldi was active for over 30 years. Fortunately at least the elder abbot general knew how to make a wily, sweet and short little speech.

The group to perform these Easter concerts is the Vienna Bach Consort under Rubén Dubrovsky, one of the groups in the possibly budding Old Music / Historical Performance scene of Vienna’s, now that the Concentus Musicus’ strangle hold (an uncharitable but arguably apt description) on that niche is loosened, after Johann Nikolaus Count de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt’s passing. Anyway, it’s that band and the Salzburg Bach Chorus that do the performing and the soloists on this occasion were sopranos Hanna Herfurtner and Joowon Chung and countertenor Andreas Scholl.

The latter was of course the star, the name, the top billed element, the coup, the USP. Last time I heard him was at the Schubertiade in 2013 (“A Silver Voice in a Golden Age of Countertenors”); before that in Salzburg in 2012 (Giulio Cesare in Egitto) and Munich in 2010 (St. John Passion with Ton Koopman). The tenor throughout was more or less “effortful beauty” and “strained high notes” and while he was “once a trailblazer for countertenors, setting new standards for quality and popularity, he’s now—his career far from being over—been passed and surpassed by a new purpose-built crop of countertenors”. We know that now; eventually there won’t be a need to harp on that. Yes, agility and lightness are diminished, but he still has an even, beautiful voice which, even when forced, has a pleasantly plangent, reedy character that now approximates a cor anglais. Rubén Dubrovsky candidly suggested that it was actually inspiring to hear an artist, admittedly not at peak power, willing to expose himself to criticism or comparison, while and because he still and decidedly had musical things to say. Scholl performed the ‘introduzioni’ Filiae Maestae Jerusalem, RV 638 very calmly, with a low energy pulse… but what worked against it was the mono-dramatic nature of the work. The piece, meant to precede a lost Miserere, lent itself, as a seat neighbor poignantly observed (with no ill will to Scholl, certainly), to “Vivaldi-yodeling”. The Stabat Mater was improved, but along these lines—with, dare I say it, overtones of monotony. For a dose of the same, with the fresh Scholl, one need only to turn to the 1995 recording with the Ensemble 415 on Harmonia Mundi which also contains the Filiae mestae Jerusalem, except not tacked to the Stabat Mater.

No matter, because surrounding this slightly anodyne center of the concert were two real gems. First the de-facto overture of the concert, Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor RV 156. High on elegance, sublime artlessness and taking wing in the generous but never bathtubby acoustic of the beautiful basilica, it found flight and delighted to no end. Even the elaborate, long-lasting tuning session that preceded it had merit: it sounded like an involuntary Arvo Pärt Overture. Finally, the fleet Gloria RV589, preceded by an unnecessary Lauda Jerusalem, picked up where the concerto had left off. The Salzburg Bach Chorus might have been just a little smaller or a little less fast or a little more precise or a little of all of the above to make itself more readily understood in the generous acoustic. But that would be nitpicking. Sopranos Hanna Herfurtner and Joowon Chung were well matched: Neither are particularly light voices, both were just a bit forced, functional and very good; the former with a hard, accurate and bright instrument and prone to push when intending to make an accent; the latter with a softer, sometimes more approximating, beguiling voice. A gorgeous oboe stood out (the same oboe as in a recently reviewed Mozart Concerto K.314 where I likened it to “Pavarotti reincarnated as a juvenile goose”, just not in nearly as gratifying a part this time); Andreas Scholl, too, stood out, but not always for the right reasons. But overall, the Gloria still had that ‘just-right’ feeling, with a reign of sweetness yet without any hint of descending towards treacle or boredom. There’s good reason to suspect—and look forward to—a fourth Easter Concert at the Klosterneuburg Monastery next year.

Picture courtesy and © Ernesto Gelles

(from left) Andreas Scholl, Joowon Chung, the chap with the speech, Rubén Dubrovsky, Hanna Herfurtner and unknown beauty (if I had to guess, I'd say Naoko Baba from the Salzburg Bach Choir).
Picture courtesy and © Ernesto Gelles

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