Bach, Johannes-Passion, Bachchor und Orchester Hannover, Marktkirche

I attended a performance of J.S. Bach's Passion according to St. John (Johannespassion) by the  Hannover Bach Choir and Orchestra last night at the Marktkirche in the central market square of Hannover's old town. I may or may not have listened my way through this work on LP as a youngster, and probably did overhear it on the stereo growing up, but this is probably my first careful listen to the whole piece. (About two hours, no intermission though a brief episode of tuning between the two sections.)  A very rewarding if, obviously, fairly solemn two hours.  Really superb choral singing with the different vocal parts sufficiently distinct and the words very clear (well, especially with the aid of a program given my limited German) but the choir unified.  Remarkably dramatic effect when the choir portrays the crowds present at the high priest's and Pilate's interrogations of Jesus, contrasting with the choir's other main role as expressing Christian sentiments from a point of view that is not necessarily within the narrative aspect of the piece (but might also be taken so, as expressing another aspect of experience of some in the crowd).  The latter is usually in hymn-like chorales, but also often (as in the opening "Herr, unser Herrscher dessen Ruhm") in more complex and extended episodes with more involvement of the orchestra.  The visible wind instruments were baroque in appearance, there was a large lute, and I suspect the string section and most or all of the rest of the orchestra was original style instruments as well.  Tempos were relatively fast, and the resulting sound was excellent, though for some reason the orchestra came across with less clarity than the singers---the relatively reverberant acoustic of the tall, relatively open North German gothic brick hall church maybe having something to do with that. On balance I think the original instruments and the chosen tempos gave a somewhat rough, unprettified, but still accurate and well-played, effect that worked extremely well in the piece, accentuating its seriousness.  Some passages, in which the choir and orchestra engaged in extended contrapuntal reflection upon a dramatic development, or expression of the crowd's intention or reaction, with voices and instruments becoming a swirl of fast-moving harmonies and passing tones, attained an eerie and dramatic effect that reminded me of some century postserialism, maybe Ligeti or Penderecki.   The soloists were really excellent and did everything well.  Such a performance is definitely not about attention-getting individual vocals but all the soloists did have, in performances that were consistent throughout, some songs that really stood out in expressing key moments in the drama.   Alto Christian Rohrbach has a beautiful clear voice and delivered "Es ist vollbracht!" perfectly; the soprano soloist (either Miriam Meyer or Nadine Dilger; two sopranos are listed in the program) was especially affecting (though never overdoing it) with "Zerfließe, mein Herze" ("Dein Jesus ist tot!"); bass Albrecht Pohl did a great job of handling a variety of vocal tasks in combining the role of Pilate with many additional bass arias.  Johannes Strauß was especially outstanding as the Evangelist---he has an amazingly clear and beautiful tenor voice, deployed with perfect control.

Of course an extended piece like this with religious and dramatic aspects is an occasion for plenty of reflection on musical aspects of the piece but also on these in relation to the human condition.  One of the more interesting aspects of this piece for me was the amount of attention given to the political and social aspect of the story: the interaction with Pilate (I don't fully understand what's going on here yet), the issue about Jesus being called "King of the Jews" but asserting "My kingdom is not of this world", the high priest and the servant, and later the crowd after the exchange with Pilate "Shall I crucify your king?" "We have no King but the Emperor", calling for Jesus' crucifixion.  (There seems to be an emphasis on "the Jews" delivering Jesus to Pilate and calling for his crucifixion in this text.)

A superb, clear, controlled and well-thought-out performance and a perfect way to get better acquainted with this serious, reflective, many-faceted masterwork of Bach's.

Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts---Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Oxford

Just came from an extraordinary concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in which the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford performed a version of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, with two pieces from composer and baritone Roderick Williams' Oxford Blues Service inserted in the Sacred Concert running order.  This constituted the second half of the program; I'll perhaps write in another post about the first half, which featured many good things but a sound balance that was slightly problematic at times, with the band occasionally drowning out the excellent guest soloist, alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock.  (I can't allude to the first half, though, without mentioning the really superb singing of first-year Olivia Williams in "Lookin' Back" and "Feelin' Good".)  In the second half, the balance was suddenly almost perfect, the bass acoustic throughout, the swing consistent and unforced, and immediately with the meditative baritone saxophone solo, originally performed by Harry Carney, that introduces "In the Beginning God" we were immersed in Duke Ellington's world of sound and his personal take on religion and spirituality.  Besides the excellence of the band, choir, and soloists, the conducting and preparation of the musicians by Schola conductor James Burton was clearly crucial to the success of this performance.  Nigel Hitchcock's beautiful alto playing was another crucial ingredient, but the regular band members who played key solos, like the baritone sax in "In the Beginning", the clarinet in "Freedom", the plunger-muted trumpet in "The Shepherd" did themselves and the Duke proud as well.  The Roderick Williams pieces "Gray Skies Passing Over" and "The Lord's Prayer"  fit in perfectly, being in a somewhat harmonically lush jazz-to-mid-twentieth-century pop vocal style very similar to parts of the Ellington vocal score, but more contrapuntal, with, I think, an echo of English, and even perhaps Renaissance, church music.

Besides getting real swing from the ensemble, Burton kept things relaxed but accurate, with a real dynamic range, the band in balance with the soloists (Ellington's writing presumably helps here too), expressive phrasing and control over the pace and development of each piece.  "Freedom" was another standout, done with intense feeling and great energy, drawing roars of approval from the audience.  But all the movements were executed superbly, and there were many such moments.  The tap-dancing of Annette Walker, in "David Danced Before The Lord" was another highlight.

This was an utterly professional-sounding performance that felt infused with the passion of people who are together reaching a level they may or may not have reached before, in the zone, giving the audience a musical experience not to be forgotten.  The Sacred Concerts may be a work best experienced live---it was certainly immensely effective, enjoyable, powerful, and moving in this performance.  Bass player and alto Lila Chrisp who is in both groups apparently had the idea that they should join forces in this piece.  I'm very grateful to everyone involved for making this happen and really filling the Sheldonian with the spirit---especially the spirit of Duke Ellington and his band.

 

Des Américains à Paris

Via Ned Rorem, a really nice photo and audio montage promoting a program of a cappella choral music by some of Nadia Boulanger's American pupils: Ives, Copland, Bernstein, Barber, Stravinsky, Copland, Reich, Glass.   If I were in Luxembourg or deep Southwest France in March, I'd definitely go out of my way to hear this. High-resolution photos; it's worth making the video full-screen.