Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantatas 1 – 3
Bax: Mater ora Filium (1921)
Britten: Christ’s Nativity — Christmas Suite (1931)
Tonhalle Zurich, 2014-12-19
2016-07-31 — Brushed up for better readability
My first reaction in writing this short review was to use a title such as “Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — How Not To“. But let me start properly. This year’s Christmas concert in the Tonhalle Zurich (on Friday, 2014-12-19) was given by the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy). That’s a professional choir, founded in 2011, following the footsteps of the Schweizer Kammerchor (Swiss Chamber Choir), see also my posting “Bringuier & Wang in Zurich, 2014-09-11“. The Zurich Singing Academy is under the direction of its leader, Timothy Brown (*1942), allegedly one of the world’s leading choral directors. Tim Brown has retired from the position of Music Director at Clare College, Cambridge, in 2010.
The program for the concert at Zurich Tonhalle included three compositions:
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata No.1, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage”
- Bax: “Mater ora Filium” for choir a cappella (1921)
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantata No.2, “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend”
- Britten: “Christ’s Nativity — Christmas Suite” for soloists and choir a cappella (1931)
- Bach: Christmas Oratorio, Cantata No.3, BWV 248, “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen”
For Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (i.e., the first three cantatas from that composition), the choir was accompanied by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. I did not expect this to be a “strictly historically informed” performance. Indeed, modern instruments were used, the choir was close to 40 members (11 + 9 + 8 + 9 according to the program notes), homogeneous within the voices, the orchestra also was mid-size (2 x 5 – 6 violins). In addition to the orchestra, there were four soloists: Stephanie Pfeffer, soprano (a member of the choir), Patricia Bardon, alto, Thomas Hobbs, tenor, and Neal Davies, bass-baritone.
My expectations: As I knew the Zurich Singing Academy from an earlier concert, I expected an excellent choir performance. Of course, I personally would have preferred a “proper” HIP performance. However, an interpretation on modern instruments may still be close to historically informed. I anticipated that the role of the tenor would be particularly critical for the outcome. His role is that of a narrator of the German text in Bach’s composition. But he also needs to master a prominent aria in the second cantata. I have in the past made mixed experiences with non-native German-speaking evangelists in Bach’s vocal works, see my review of recordings of Bach’s St.John Passion.
I was not familiar with either the Bax or the Britten compositions in the program, but I knew that also the alto is most critical in the Bach oratorio, with several arias. Obviously, the choir was central to all compositions this evening. But let me deal with the concert by composer / composition:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
The key issue (and flaw, I’m afraid) in this performance of the first three cantatas from the Christmas Oratorio was with the tempo. It’s a tricky problem, because in this piece (with very few exceptions), Bach almost never specified a tempo. Hence: do the artists enjoy complete freedom? I don’t think so! Is it all “tempo ordinario“, presumably. But if so, what is tempo ordinario? I believe the “right” tempo (rather: the range of acceptable tempo for a given piece) is given by
- the need to pronounce text & make it understandable to the audience,
- the requirement for proper articulation of the fast(est) ornaments / notes, both in the vocal as well as the instrumental parts,
- for vocal pieces, the needs for the artist(s) to breathe, and how breathing can be accommodated in longer phrases,
- on the slow side: the need for a melody line to remain perceptible (i.e., don’t overstretch it!).
- Finally: chorales are derived from community singing. Many melodies must have been (and perhaps still are) well-known to church goers. Therefore, they should be sung in a “natural, speaking tempo”. In older performances they were often “over-celebrated” and far too slow.
The Christmas Oratorio has a few more stumbling blocks. Some of the choirs (especially opening choirs) are written in a rather rigid rhythmic scheme, and particularly in historically informed performances where the “lesser” beats in a bar receive “light” articulation, this often results in heavy accents on the strong beats. This can make the music sound either heavy, clumsy, or almost like military music. I don’t think Bach’s music should sound too “Prussian”. OK, it is possible that European history over the last century made us over-sensitive to “military aspects”!
To return to this concert, here’s what (I think) happened: Tim Brown prepared the choir, making sure diction and articulation are perfect. And they indeed were. However, it sounded as if he hadn’t spent a second thinking about the orchestral accompaniment. He also didn’t seem to consider how the music might sound in the ear of an audience member that might have come to the concert to enjoy Christmas music and the “feeling of Christmas”.
Worse than that: he seemed to push the tempo to demonstrate the choir’s virtuosity and agility (and these were indeed astounding). But it felt like he did so without any consideration whether such tempo is suitable, even playable by the orchestra. And whether it would still permit coordinating a good, but medium-sized orchestra with the choir. That started with the opening choir of the first cantata: the fast pace avoids the “military feeling” / stomping rhythm. However, the tempo was fast enough to cause at least temporary mis-coordination, if not rhythmic chaos in the orchestra, particularly the strings.
In the second cantata, the tempo issues continued. I’m particularly thinking of the virtuosic choir “Ehre sei Gott”, which Brown pushed through way too fast. Overall, one can best describe the result as “chaos”, even though the choir may have sung all coloraturas perfectly. No festive music, praising the Lord, merely a Formula 1 race in virtuosity. Similarly, the opening choir to the third cantata, “Herrscher des Himmels”, was too fast, giving raise to coordination problems within the orchestra. The music felt pushed, overdriven, never allowing for a split second of relaxing or temporary relief from all the pushing forward. In the following choir “Lasset uns nun gehen”, the transverse flute made an admirable effort to cope with the tempo (congrats!).
The tempo excesses also affected pieces other than the big choruses. In the first cantata, the aria “Bereite dich, Zion” was equally pushed. This made it impossible for the musicians to differentiate. Agogics was something the conductor didn’t even appear to consider. Also in the chorale-arioso “Er ist auf Erden kommen her” (choir + soprano) / recitativo (bass), there was too much contrast in tempo between the choir and the recitativo part. The transitions didn’t feel harmonic: every time after a recitativo, one felt a “rather / too fast” again. Some agogics (other than just the final ritardando) would have been a blessing.
The final aria “Großer Herr” (bass) in that same Cantata No.1, was of course fast again, and it lacked flexibility in the tempo. The trumped occasionally appeared to push ahead. The bass on the other hand was not given the opportunity for slight ritardandi / agogics. In his final bars, he did a ritardando anyway. With this, he fell behind by more than a beat, as the orchestra relentlessly continued on its path.
The second cantata opens with a purely instrumental Sinfonia. Oddly, even that was very fast. This caused superficialities in playing the semiquavers. The music had no chance to develop the typical 6/8 swing. Isn’t that supposed to be a peaceful, bucolic herdsmen scene?
Tim Brown’s tempo excesses / constant pushing for speed also affected some of the chorales. Some were OK, but most remained instrumental, prevented the natural “speaking” flow.
Let me switch to some more enjoyable comments: the biggest, positive surprise for me was the tenor, Thomas Hobbs. He sang most of the recitiativo parts with a very clear voice, with a timbre that sometimes reminded of Peter Schreier’s voice, with very limited vibrato in the high register. The performance was using a modern pitch (probably a’ = 442 Hz). Unfortunately, this often forced the tenor to sing with the head register only, causing his voice to lack brilliance. Sometimes he even evaded into falsetto, e.g., in the central aria “Frohe Hirten” in the second cantata.
My neighbors claimed that the tenor properly sang all of the very fast coloraturas in the middle part of the second cantata. But that doesn’t mean that the music didn’t feel pushed. The tempo further did not allow the singer to show his nice voice. The coloraturas were so fast that the listener could barely follow. The flute again made a heroic effort to keep up with the conductor.
The following aria for alto “Schlafe mein Liebster” easily feels fast in the orchestra (and of course it did here!). But at the same time, the alto is singing very long phrases. One might think that a fast(er) tempo would help the singer. Yet, the fast pace and the lack of flexibility in the tempo did not allow the singer to breathe, which affected the flow.
About Patricia Bardon‘s voice: for me it was a bit heavy / operatic and too dramatic for Bach. In this particular aria she had the tendency for dramatic crescendo on high notes. The entire performance did not appear to fit the text. On the bright side: in the third cantata, the alto has an aria, “Schließe, mein Herze”, which was one of the few pieces (apart from recitativo parts) that did not feel rushed / pushed. But that was only because Tim Brown did not conduct here. He left the playing to the alto, the solo violinist and the continuo players.
The bass, Neal Davies, has a good voice & volume. It is maybe a bit too dramatic, almost wild at times, for this music. In the middle and lower register, the voice often was too open, and then his “A” vowels sounded rather coarse, even vulgar.
The soprano, Stephanie Pfeffer, only has a minor part in these three cantatas: mainly a recitativo in the second cantata and a duet “Herr, dein Mitleid” with the bass in the third cantata. That latter piece unfortunately was another speed race. Though the two singers and the two oboe d’amore did their best to keep up with the conductor. They received the one extra applause this evening! Stephanie Pfeffer has a nice, clear voice with a bright timbre, limited vibrato, and it projected very well, even when she was singing from her position within the choir.
Strangely, the tenor and the bass were placed within the orchestra, almost next to the choir, while the alto was singing at the front edge of the of the podium. Both tenor and bass are often singing text from the bible, which must have been very relevant / central in Bach’s mind. Therefore, in my opinion they deserved a front position, too.
I can’t blame the orchestra for the deficiencies in coordination, the occasional minor rhythmic chaos. They tried their best, and some of the wind players (flute, brass) coped with the selected tempo amazingly well. At first, I sensed that the wind instruments were a bit weak in comparison with the strings. Later, I forgot about this, maybe my ears got used to the instrumental balance? Ideally, I would have preferred a smaller orchestra on the part of the strings (the number of wind instruments is given by the score). But then, that would also have called for a smaller choir — and it all is linked to the question of HIP vs. non-HIP.
Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953): Mater ora Filium (1921)
Arnold Bax was an English composer and poet that is not known very well in central Europe. That’s definitely an odd omission, as I can tell from this concert. Bax’ biography tells us that he has gone through quite an evolution in his life as a composer. One cannot simply draw conclusions / expectations on the other parts of his rich compositorial oeuvre. In any case, Bax thought of himself as a firmly romantic composer, throughout the many influences that he ingested over the course of his life. His oeuvre is fairly big and comprises symphonic (7 completed symphonies), chamber, piano, as well as vocal music (choir, songs). Sadly, even in England, his music was almost forgotten after his death. But apparently, it has seen a revival over the recent decades.
Music for unaccompanied chorus is a very small fraction in Bax’ vocal works; the eight-part (SSAATTBB) motet “Mater ora Filium” was composed in 1921 and was premiered in London in 1922. It appears that the composer was inspired for this composition by William Byrd’s “Five Part Mass”. The influence is not in the actual melodies or concrete structural elements, though. Also other music from Byrd’s period played a role. Bax felt that the music by William Byrd was more significant than J.S. Bach’s. He wrote “Mater ora Filium” for double-chorus, with a short solo for tenor. Melodically, even harmonically, its beginning indeed reminds of music of the Elisabethan period. But then, the music definitely turns towards late-romantic and post-romantic, expanded tonality.
The composition is very nice, rich in harmonic “colors”, but often converges into unison or a resting chord. In parts, it expands into harmonic progressions that remind me of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s music. For the choir it is very demanding: 10 minutes with such a richness in harmonies and modulations, without any accompaniment! It includes extreme heights, especially for the sopranos. These were performed here with firm intonation, full sound (easily filling the Tonhalle). Very nice music, indeed, making me curious to explore the works of this composer, congrats to the choir for this performance!
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976): Christ’s Nativity — Christmas Suite (1931)
The Christmas Suite “Christ’s Nativity” is one of Benjamin Britten‘s early compositions. It was written during his time at the Royal College of Music. It’s a work of astonishing maturity, in which Britten has already fully developed his personal style. Strangely, though, Britten has apparently never heard this work performed in its entirety. The first full performance only happened in 1991. The suite is written for four voices (SATB) with solo parts for soprano and alto, about 15 minutes in duration, and in parts it is substantially more demanding than Arnold Bax’ composition, especially in the intonation.
Starting with this right after the intermission in the concert was particularly tricky. One could sense that it took the choir about half a minute to “find its harmonic foundation”, until the intonation really became clear. However, in the aftermath, this was merely an episode. The remaining 15 minutes presented an excellent performance, especially considering the challenge of maintaining good intonation in Britten’s complex chords / harmonies in a choir with close to 40 members, spread in two rows over the width of the podium.
The solo parts were sung by Stephanie Pfeffer and Patricia Bardon; the former with the same, clear voice as in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Interestingly, Patricia Bardon’s voice sounded less “charged” than in the Bach. It was very well adapted to the voice of the soprano, and to Britten’s music. In some ways, it was a pity that the memory of this excellent composition and performance was then overshadowed by the third cantata from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which concluded the concert. To me, it would have been better to finish the concert with Britten.
As expected, the choir was indeed excellent, virtuosic, with perfect, transparent diction (at least in the German part of the concert), well-balanced, full-sounded, homogeneous within the voices. That’s clearly the result of Tim Brown’s four years of excellent work with the choir. Thank you, Mr. Brown, for the excellent preparation. However, with the Christmas Oratorio, I had hoped to hear a bit more music, rather than just a demonstration of the power, agility etc. of the choir…