2018-04-07 — Original posting
Martinskirche, Basel, 2018-03-29
Winfried Toll, Camerata Vocale Freiburg, Kammerorchester Basel
Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245
The venue for this concert was the Martinskirche in Basel (Church St.Martin), the oldest parish church in Basel, in the center of the old town. The church was first mentioned around 1101. Parts of the existing church date back to 1287 (Roman style), while the choir and the southern facade date from the late 14th century. Since 1529, this is a reformed church. The building is one of Basel’s prominent concert venues (especially now that the most important venue, the Stadtcasino Basel, is undergoing renovation.
My initial intent was to write a review for Bachtrack from this performance. However, as Bachtrack was not interested in having this reviewed, my wife and I booked regular tickets—fairly late. The venue was pretty much sold out, so the best pair of seats that I could get were two seats on the left side of the balcony (still in the main nave), in the second row. The view from these seats was less than ideal, but acoustically we did not feel too much at a disadvantage. In fact, the acoustics of the venue worked amazingly well, and there was no excess of reverberation, as often in churches.
The organizing body for this concert was the Kammerorchester Basel (Basel Chamber Orchestra, founded 1984, see also Wikipedia). I have previously written about a concert with this orchestra (2017-10-30 under Trevor Pinnock in Zurich). The ensemble works both in the area of early music, as well as with contemporary music. The orchestra does not have a permanent conductor.
This evening, the Kammerorchester Basel worked with a choir, the Camerata Vocale Freiburg. The choir exists since 1977. Initially it worked without conductor, but since 1988, its choir master is Winfried Toll (*1955). The choir frequently cooperates with the Kammerorchester Basel, as well as with orchestras in Southern Germany. In this concert, the mixed vocal ensemble consisted of around 36 singers, spread evenly over the four voices.
The two obvious, prominent roles in this performance were covered by
- Christoph Prégardien (*1956, see also Wikipedia), tenor — evangelist
- Daniel Ochoa (*1979, see also Wikipedia), baritone — Jesus
The arias, as well as the other biblical roles were performed by the following soloists:
- Regula Mühlemann (see also Wikipedia), soprano (see also an earlier review from a concert in Zurich)
- Oscar Verhaar, countertenor (*1987)
- Michael Feyfar, tenor
- Peter Schöne, baritone (*1976, see also Wikipedia)
Peter Schöne was stepping in at short notice, for the French baritone Benoît Arnould, who had fallen ill.
Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245
I don’t need to introduce the composition of the evening: the St.John Passion, BWV 245, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is known abundantly well. In addition, I have posted an extensive comparison of 7 recordings of this work in an earlier posting (originally from 2013-06-24). That article includes plenty of remarks on what I find important in performances of this work, what I’m watching for, etc.
In comparison to most other concert reports, I keep the review below short. That’s in parts because of my non-ideal position in the audience. This may be non-representative for the average audience member. There were many seats that were much worse, both in terms of view, as well as in acoustics. Also, I typically do my review by movement. Here, the passion is divided up into 40 numbers, so a “chronological review” is out of question. Instead, I’m organizing my comments by artist / role.
With the exception of Regula Mühlemann and the Kammerorchester Basel, I hadn’t heard any of the artists in concert before. I was particularly interesting in hearing Christoph Prégardien in concert: I hold him in highest respect among today’s tenors. And the encounter did not disappoint me at all! Then, of course, I was very much looking forward to another encounter with Regula Mühlemann, probably today’s highest rated Swiss coloratura soprano. Plus, I’m always curious to witness new artists in concert. But let’s start with the most central roles in this Passion:
Christoph Prégardien, Tenor — Evangelist
The encounter with Christoph Prégardien remains one of the dominant impressions from this concert. He alone (but not exclusively, of course) already made attending this concert worthwhile! He very much shaped his part from the text, the content. Prégardien was absolutely superb in language flow, intonation, diction and pronunciation, with plasticity, descriptive, pictorial, full of life, yet with the appropriate dignity, avoiding excess drama: masterful—without doubt one of the best evangelists available today.
Some highlights: how illustrative, this chilling coldness in “denn es war kalt“! And, of course, the very touching and expressive “und weinete bitterlich”.
Daniel Ochoa, Baritone — Jesus
Almost unavoidably, Ochoa did not have much of a chance to compete with the evangelist. I personally would have preferred the warmth, maybe also the heavier, more contemplative, more solemn, more “settled” nature of a bass voice, rather than that of a baritone. Yes, Jesus was young when he died. However, at the same time, that part represents God’s Son. He did occasionally lack volume in the lowest register, sometimes also clarity in fast ornaments, and for my personal taste, his timbre was a bit too “covered”.
Choir: Camerata Vocale Freiburg
This is a mid-size, excellent non-professional choir with a very good balance / mix of voices. I found it to sing with vivid dynamics, good (though not salient) diction. Note that with works that one knows inside out (I know the text pretty much by heart), it is easy to hear the diction / pronunciation that one expects to hear, especially in somewhat blurry acoustics.
In homophonic sections, the choir showed an impressive volume, almost as with big choirs. On the other hand, the choir is small enough, such that one occasionally starts hearing individual voices. In soft sections, the soprano occasionally sounded a bit thin, in the alto, there were voices with rather protruding vibrato. One can certainly not say that the choir was too heavy on the basses: occasionally I wished for a slightly more sonorous (bass) foundation. Overall, I found the choir to combine characteristics (volume) of bigger lay choirs with pros (diction, clarity) and cons (limited homogeneity) of smaller ensembles.
In the big choirs at both ends of the passion, I found the choir to sing with vivid dynamics. Occasionally, in soft segments, it was in danger of being covered by the orchestra. This was not the choir’s fault, though, but rather an issue of controlling the volume of the orchestra. The singing was rhythmically poignant, with focus on the latter, rather than on trying to form big phrases / arches.
To some degree, the big chorus “Ruht wohl” at the end (prior to the final chorale) reminded me of the tradition of the big, romantic choirs in the middle of the 20th century: slightly too big, too grandiose for this particular place in the passion. Isn’t this chorale supposed to offer consolation and hope? I don’t think this is the opportunity to demonstrate big sound, a big gesture.
The chorales were maybe a tad on the schematic, verse-by-verse side. Certainly, Winfried Toll did not exaggerate in the attempt to form long phrases across the verse limits. Overall, though, he did achieve a reasonable balance between shaping individual verses (lines) and trying to link verses through the underlying language.
From the general “chorale attitude”, the interpretation certainly also reflected the “community singing” aspect of Bach’s chorales. Toll tried staying simple and natural, rather than attempting to form sophisticated artworks in the chorales. That said, there were definitely chorales that were clearly above the level and nature of community singing. One example was “Wer hat dich so geschlagen?”, with its careful dynamics. The same holds true for “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” at the end of part I.
In chorales such as “In meines Herzens Grunde”, the strength and beauty of Bach’s music prevailed above all questions of interpretation.
Shouldn’t the chorale “O hilf Christe, Gottes Sohn” (no.37), be more silent, humble, desperate, discouraged?
In the closing chorale, “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein” (no.40), the second verse (repeat of first part) was slower than the first pass—why? The “big gesture” in the second part of the chorale is understandable, if not natural—but the excess allargando in the final bars may seem tempting, but felt somewhat counter-productive, or rather: counter-intuitive, did not add intensity in the expression.
Not all of the turbae were performed at the same level of quality. The first one seemed to put rhythmic poignancy above the language: “Jesum von Naz(a)reth“. I think, ideally one ought to differentiate between “crowds” and a collection of individuals, such as a few soldiers, or other, small collections of individuals (such as the high priests, the last part of no.23). There, the full choir tended to sound too massive, often to a degree also lacking poignancy, expression, plasticity and drama. Some of the turbae (such as the first ones in part II) also tended to be somewhat schematic, occasionally towards stomping, focusing on rhythm and melody, rather than dramatic expression.
The excess size of the choir for some of the turbae also covered vital parts in some of the accompaniment, such as the furiously mocking oboes and flutes in “Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam!” (18), or—even more so—the two (equally mocking) traversos in “Sei gegrüßet” (21). Rhythmically, the latter also felt a bit stiff. This also applies to “Schreibe nicht!” in no.25.
Coordination way impeccable, in genera,. Maybe with the minor exception of some shaky moments in “Lässest du diesen los” within no.23.
The famously virtuosic “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen” was obviously rehearsed exceptionally well: coordination, syncopes / agility and coloraturas were really excellent. This likely was the choral highlight in this concert. That said: this is another turba where the choir represents a few soldiers, hence a smaller vocal ensemble would be more adequate (as much as it would feel harsh to deny parts of the choir the fun to sing this piece!
As accompaniment to a fair-sized chamber choir, the orchestra was definitely very good. From my distant position, I could not really judge the performance of the strings (modern bows and instruments, as far as I could see), but the wind soloists were impeccable in terms of articulation, intonation, and phrasing, throughout the passion. One example: in no.9, the soprano aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls“, I particularly liked the two traversos in unison, really sounding like a single instrument.
The continuo featured an organ and a theorbo, besides a double bass, cello, and viola da gamba. The continuo for Jesus was done without theorbo. The passion has a lot of prominent basso continuo accompaniment. I mostly liked the continuo, but during the second half, it occurred to me that the continuo started to sound a bit uniform, maybe too predictable. It also occasionally sounded too full: more differentiation in dynamics and ornamentation (also instrumentation?), maybe sometimes more subtlety would have helped.
In particular, I found the accompaniment in the aria no.32, “Mein teurer Heiland, lass mich klagen” (with chorale in the choir) rather monotonous / uniform in the continuo / double bass. That particular aria / chorale didn’t feel quite compelling / conclusive: did it lack solemnity, calm, subtlety?
Winfried Toll, Conductor
Toll’s tempi were fluent, natural, never extreme (i.e., neither exceedingly slow / heavy, nor inappropriately sporty). Occasionally, I found the performance to be somewhat on the schematic / predictable side—a danger particularly with monotonous, repeated motifs in the orchestra, such as in the opening choir. In the opening choir, I noted the distinct, long pause prior to the da capo (why?), and a somewhat strong allargando at the very end.
Regula Mühlemann, Soprano
In many ways, Regula Mühlemann’s aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (no.9) was one of the highlights of this performance. In terms of clarity (in coloraturas, etc.), ornamentation, volume, projection, the soprano was exemplary: simply a joy to listen to! Bach’s aria is very demanding, though, in that it asks for presence also in the lowest register, where Mühlemann’s volume starts to diminish. The one question that I asked myself was, whether a more lyrical voice (with less vibrato) wouldn’t have been the better choice here.
Regula Mühlemann’s second, big and important aria is no.35, “Zerfließe, mein Herze”. This is one where I would have preferred a simpler basso continuo (especially in the theorbo. To me, this is also a piece asking for a simple, natural expression, a lyrical voice, restraining the volume. The singing was impeccable, absolutely flawless, sure—but did it really express the tears, the heart being torn apart, the mourning, the immense sadness? Yes, the aria sounds simple, but it is a considerable challenge, interpretation-wise!
Oscar Verhaar, Countertenor
From a pure duration point-of-view, the arias appear to play a minor role. However, they nevertheless play a key function as “comments and interpretation to the biblical content” and are rather challenging. Sadly, the alto arias in this performance were rather disappointing. Maybe the countertenor simply did not have a good day, or maybe he was indisposed? His voice control and ornamentation was OK, but in terms of volume, he was often struggling to project across the two oboes in “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden“.
Verhaar’s singing lacked rhythmic poignancy, and fast ornaments / fioriture lacked clarity. Also, his timbre sounded close to that of a boy’s voice, and I’m not sure whether that’s the appropriate choice for the reflective nature of the alto arias in this passion.
The second, big aria for the countertenor / alto is no.30, “Es ist vollbracht”, with its prominent viola da gamba accompaniment, immediately before Jesus’ passing. Here, I felt that an even simpler accompaniment (less ornamentation on the theorbo) would have been more appropriate. As for the solo part: clearly, the Molt’ adagio part in this aria was a number “too big” for the countertenor: it requires immense calm, a large phrasing span, also across rests. The Vivace part, on the other hand, was fine in the coloraturas, except that it felt a bit short-breathed.
Michael Feyfar, Tenor
“Ach, mein Sinn”: very nice voice, good diction and timbre, good projection across the tonal range, clear in the ornaments!
In the aria (20) “Erwäge” (with accompaniment of two viole d’amore, as no.19, see below), the tenor sounded a tad short-breathed, even though I liked his voice control. One should note, though, that this aria is one of the most difficult pieces in the passion. Technically, it was mastered well, but in terms of Gestaltung, i.e., expression and forming of long phrases, it wasn’t entirely compelling.
I liked Feyfar’s performance in no.34, “Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt”, excellent voice and projection, the right amount of drama.
Peter Schöne, Baritone
A very impressive voice—and, in some ways, I would have preferred Peter Schöne in the role of Jesus. The timbre, volume and character of his voice seemed the better fit for that role! That statement is pointless, though, as Schöne was “just” a last-minute substitute for Benoît Arnould. The “reversed characteristics” were most obvious in no.21, where both Petrus and Jesus appear: here, I really wished for the roles to be interchanged!
A key role for the bass is the central arioso (19) “Betrachte meine Seel”, with the accompaniment of two viole d’amore. In the arioso, the tempo was a tad too fast, causing the solo to lack depth and calm (Bach annotates Adagio).
“Eilt, eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen”, is a severe challenge in vocal range: this is definitely an aria for bass, rather than baritone. Maybe Winfried Toll should have dampened the accompaniment, for Peter Schöne’s lowest segments to project? Here, the “Wohin?” interjections are really tricky for the choir, both in coordination, as well as in the intonation. Considering the challenge, the choir performed well.