Florian Helgath, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Orchestra La Scintilla
Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245

Kirche St.Jakob, Zurich, 2019-04-17

4-star rating

2019-04-22 — Original posting


Outline


Introduction

Last December, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (Zurich Singing Academy) invited me to attend and comment on their performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (i.e., its first three cantatas). The conductor in that concert was the choir’s director, Florian Helgath (*1978), and already that concert was a cooperation with the Orchestra La Scintilla Zurich, Zurich’s biggest and most prominent formation for historically informed performances. That concert was at the Kirche St.Jakob (St.Jacob’s Church), a venue frequently used for concerts.

This year, I was pleased to note that the Sing-Akademie invited me to their concerts again. A mere two months after their concert on 2019-02-10, (mostly a cappella), this now was another “big” concert. The conductor was Florian Helgath again, and the choir once more relied upon the Orchestra la Scintilla. This time (appropriate for the date, Wednesday before the Easter weekend) the concert featured J.S. Bach’s St.John Passion:

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.

Earlier Concert Performances in this Blog

I’m familiar with this work, not just from the CD comparison mentioned above, but also because decades ago I have participated in performances of the St.John Passion, as a member of a choir. In addition, last year, I have reviewed a performance of that passion oratorio in Basel, on 2018-03-29. A mere two days later, I had been invited to attend and review a performance in Lausanne, on 2018-03-31. Both these performances were not only vastly different from each other, but they also were very different in many ways from the one in this concert. I’ll address these differences further in the text below.

About this Review

In comparison to most other concert reports, this review does not follow the structure of the work. This passion oratorio is divided up into 40 numbers, so a “chronological review” is out of question. Instead, I’m organizing my comments by artist / role. And the sequence of the sections on ensembles / artists is roughly that of their first appearance, with some obvious exceptions.

Also, I’m not starting with presenting the artists. Rather, I’ll write a few words on the soloist in the discussion below. I mentioned the choir, the orchestra and the conductor above. They don’t need an introduction. One statement in my review for a recent one of their concerts was “I have had the pleasure to attend a fair number of concerts with this choir—my expectations for this evening were very high!”. Needless to say that this statement still holds true. And these expectations were fulfilled!

Where I’m referring to specific arias, chorales, etc., I’m using the numbering scheme of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA). That numbering is also included with the Wikipedia article on BWV 245.

Setting, etc.

The choir was kind enough to reserve me and my wife two central first-row balcony seats, so I could take photos (all photos except for the header are © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved). The acoustics are excellent from that position, and so is the view. The only drawback for taking photos has nothing to do with the seats, but with the fact that the lighting was fairly moderate (to say the least) for the soloists at the front of stage, as well as for the instrumentalists at the front of the orchestra.


The Performance

Orchestra la Scintilla

As mentioned, I don’t need to introduce the orchestra, a foundation of 1998. The ensemble continues a tradition that goes back to Monteverdi and early classical opera performances in the late 1970’s at Zurich’s Opera House under Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016). I hold the orchestra in highest esteem. Certainly among the ensembles specializing on historically informed performances, and most definitely in this part of Switzerland. They didn’t disappoint in this concert!

Setting

The orchestra performed with 4 first violins (concert master: Hannah Weinmeister), next to four second violins. The three violas (two alternating with viola d’amore) sat at the far left, behind the first violins. There were two cellos, one double bass, one bass viol (viola da gamba). The continuo featured one chest organ, alternating with harpsichord, and a theorbo. And the wind section consisted of two traversos, two oboes (alternating with oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia), and a bassoon.

All string instrumentalists used baroque or early classic bows (and presumably gut strings). Most or all violins and violas were baroque models (shorter fingerboard, flatter neck for reduced string tension).

Performance

Bach’s passion oratorio is not an orchestral showpiece, there are only few segments where the orchestra plays alone. The baroque instruments with their softer sound (along with the moderate size of the ensemble) made the orchestra contribution even less conspicuous. Plus, in this passion oratorio, choir and the vocal soloists capture almost all of the attention.

Still, the orchestra provides accompaniment, color, harmonic support. More than any of the vocal contributions, it is the determining part of the overall soundscape. And for that, I must say: I was extremely pleased with the performance of the ensemble. This included the string instruments with their mellow, yet characterful tone (nothing like the silky, smooth and flawless / perfect & neutral sound of modern symphony orchestras!), the soft, but colorful tone of the baroque wind instruments, oboes, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, traversos. Even just watching the instrumentalists was pure pleasure!

Also, the small number of string instruments resulted in an excellent sound balance with the woodwinds. The sound remained transparent, and there was never a danger of the orchestra competing with the choir in volume.

Rating: ★★★★½

Special mentions

  • Hannah Weinmeister was a “key assistant” to Florian Helgath, in actively helping with the coordination of the ensemble. However, with the limited size of the orchestra, that did not require “extreme efforts”: she achieved this with very discreet body gestures.
  • On the other side of the orchestra, the first cellist, Claudius Hermann, was even more central: not only was he extremely active and attentive as leader and coordinator of the continuo, but the beautiful, singing sound of his instrument was pure delight, his performance firm, with just the right amount of presence. I must say: it was such pleasure to watch and hear him play that I paid very little attention to the other continuo instruments.
  • Towards the end of the concert, the cello alternated with the viola da gamba, played by Rebeka Rusò, as continuo instrument. To me, the latter was usually hidden behind the conductor. Nevertheless, the sound of that instrument created the required special atmosphere around (and after) Jesus’ death.
  • The orchestra is full of top-class instrumentalists. I could mention numerous additional names. Let me just mention Karen Forster at the first viola d’amore, Maria Goldschmidt (first traverso), and of course Philipp Mahrenholz (oboe, oboe da caccia):

Basso Continuo

Needless to say that the basso continuo was not only physically occupying a central position in the orchestra, it is absolutely key to the entire performance, in particular with all the recitatives and arias.


Zürcher Sing-Akademie

Soon after its inception in 2011, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie positioned itself at the very forefront of European choirs. And this concert confirmed that assessment. First, an interesting detail: Helgath did not arrange the choir simply from left to right (e.g., S-A-T-B, or S-T-B-A, or T-S-A-B), or in the usual combination of horizontal and vertical setting (T/S-B/A). Rather, all voices spread over the entire stage, and throughout the choir, no more than two male or two female singers were standing together, and—if I’m not mistaken—these pairs were not of the same voice.

With this, and with the perfectly proportioned mix of 8+8+8+8 professional singers, Florian Helgath achieved perfect spacial and acoustic balance. One should keep in mind that the number of polyphonic pieces in this passion oratorio is very small. Spatial separation of the voices therefore would have added very little, if any value to the listener. The choir was big enough for achieving vocal homogeneity (no individuals protruding from the ensemble sound), while avoiding the massive, uniformity of big choirs. One should note that maintaining voice homogeneity in a spatially mixed setup can only possibly work with a choir of exclusively professional, highly trained singers.

Choir Performance

The choir performed fully at the very high level of my expectations: astounding volume, ideal vocal homogeneity across the very large dynamic span, diction, pronunciation, text understandability, transparency, agility, flexibility, light articulation, expression, drama and atmosphere. It all was there, what more could one wish for? The intonation was flawless, of course. Naturally, this included the very tricky “Wohin?” calls in the aria No.24, “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you souls), which are notoriously shaky with semi-professional and lay choirs.

The choir proved the ideal tool for realizing a choir master or conductor’s intent, from the simple, natural (people’s) language in the chorales, to the big choruses that frame the oratorio, and of course to the expressive and dramatic turbae, with the virtuosic highlight in No.27b, “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen” (Let us not rend it), not only perfect in the coloraturas, but with extreme rhythmic agility. They realized the excellent idea of putting an extra accent on every instance of “den” (“it” in English, or rather “that”). One cannot achieve that particular effect in languages other than German, certainly not in English. That said, this chorus was more than a virtuosic showpiece: it was equally dramatic, musical, and also transported the underlying narrative.

Interaction / Summary

The choir singers performed with scores in their hands, rather than on individual desks. This avoided the music stands as barrier between singer and audience (an observation with their previous concert in Zurich). It also allowed the choir to remain seated for some of the accompanying chorales. True, in order to address the audience, to speak to the listener’s heart directly, singing by heart would be even better. However, there is only so much one can achieve even with a professional choir that is performing as frequently as this one (and with such a wide-spanning repertoire).

Rating: ★★★★★


Florian Feth — Tenor (Evangelist)

The concert announcement and handout did not mention Florian Feth (*1986, Kaiserslautern, Germany). It was merely a modest leaflet near the church entrance that mentioned the singer of the Evangelist’s role. As I learned afterwards, the official tenor soloist, Angelo Pollak (see below), had committed to perform both the arias and the large, extensive role of the evangelist. However, he suffered a partial indisposition, so did not feel in a position to fulfill his complete commitment. He did perform the arias, for at very short notice (2 days!), Florian Feth—a member of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie—agreed to performing the extensive part of the Evangelist.

Sure, Florian Feth is a professional singer, and he may have performed this part before (he indeed lists this part in his repertoire). Nevertheless, the fact alone that he was willing and able to switch from the choir to the part of the Evangelist—so central and important in this oratorio—is highly commendable: congrats!

Combining Evangelist & Arias?

Technically, combining areas and the evangelist’s role may be feasible, provided the singer has the necessary endurance. From the point-of-view of (biblical) dramaturgy, however, this is at least questionable. Sure, the singer can physically switch between the “evangelist” position next to the continuo to the “aria” position close to the conductor. The bass singer did that when switching between Pilatus and arias. In the case of the tenor, however, combining the reciter of original (some might say holy, sacred) biblical text and non-biblical, contemplative arias in the same voice is at least questionable (along the same lines, it is close to unthinkable to have one singer perform Jesus, as well as the bass arias).

There’s more to this question. From the point-of-view of voice technique (range, flexibility, etc.), the aria and evangelist roles may indeed be compatible. Singing the arias is not much different from aria or Lied singing in general. However, the role of evangelist comes with many more challenges:

  • excellent firmness in intonation
  • perfect mastership of the German language (I’m considering German the only viable option, at least as long as the performance is to stay close to Bach’s original score).
  • dramatic skills, i.e., the ability to convey the biblical narrative convincingly to the listener
  • the “right” mix of lyrical and dramatic singing (excesses in either way may be detrimental)
  • in this, the singer must retain dignity, must remain a vehicle for conveying the message. Trying to turn this role into a virtuosic or dramatic show must fail.

This explains why in the world’s very top league, there are only a handful of singers (at most) who can deliver a truly compelling, convincing evangelist.

Performance

Given the extremely short-term commitment as evangelist, criticizing Florian Feth’s performance would seem harsh, unfair, hardly justifiable. Sure, he could not possible reach the “stage presence”, the intensity in the narrative, the drama of the world’s few top singers in this role (see above). However, even without considering the special circumstances, Florian Feth did a very good job at presenting the biblical story, at describing the action. His voice has a nice, bright timbre—not a huge volume, not too much vibrato, lyrical, but projecting well enough, with excellent intonation, not overly dramatic, and in harmony with the basso continuo: well done!

Rating: ★★★½


Ludwig Mittelhammer — Bass (Jesus)

Ludwig Mittelhammer (*1988 in Munich, see also Wikipedia.de) is a German baritone, singing in concert and opera. 2009 – 2015 he studied singing at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München. He also attended master classes with several prominent singers. Mittelhammer started making opera appearances in 2011, his real career launch was in 2014. While staying active in opera, over the past years, he also made concert appearances with renowned conductors and orchestras, throughout Europe.

The Role of Jesus

Selecting a singer to represent Jesus is a difficult task. The role requires a calm, warm, solemn voice, certainly not aggressive in any way, and not too dramatic. Ideally, the singer should also be “adequate” in his appearance. A giant would be as inappropriate as any singer that does not expose the appropriate dignity. At the same time, this is (meant to be) God’s Son, so too small or too modest a voice is also inappropriate.

The Performance

Ludwig Mittelhammer commands over a well-balanced voice with a warm timbre. The type of voice is almost ideal for this role, with firm intonation. However, occasionally, he sounded somewhat nervous, the frequency of his vibrato was at the upper limit (for my personal taste, at least). The solemn, calm attitude of his singing, how he shaped phrases, and the language. This all was excellent. However, he is rather a baritone, hence lacked some volume in the low register.

Overall, I wished for (occasional) authority in his voice. He represents God’s Son, after all. Sure, this part of the bible represents Jesus as a gentle, forgiving character. However, from time to time, he is indeed turning out authority in his statements. And for this, I wished for a bigger, more compelling voice—if not a “royal” one! After all, the word “King” appears numerous times in this passion oratorio. In addition, the lighting in the nave made his appearance even more inconspicuous.

Rating: ★★★½


Eugénie Warnier — Soprano (Arias)

Eugénie Warnier is a French soprano who first obtained a doctorate in medicine, before turning towards music and singing, in 2000. She successfully concluded her studies in Paris in 2005. After that, she instantly launched a career as concert and opera singer, specializing in baroque music. She has appeared in opera performances primarily in France, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. As concert soloist, she performed throughout Western Europe, and with top-class conductors and instrumental ensembles.

The Performance

A well-projecting voice, flexible, with enough volume across the range. My main quibble with her performance was in the dynamic “excursions” at the level of motifs and phrases: I wished for a more harmonious shaping of the dynamics in phrases. Maybe also a more lyrical, more even approach, e.g., in No.9, the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (I will follow you likewise with joyful steps). Even more so, the final aria, No.35, “Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” (Melt, my heart, in floods of tears), in my opinion had too much vibrato which sometimes drowned the mourning, contemplative nature of this piece. An again, the singing occasionally showed a deficit in dynamic control.

Rating: ★★★


Marie Henriette Reinhold — Alto (Arias)

Marie Henriette Reinhold (*1990 in Leipzig, Germany) did her initial studies in musicology and culture management in Weimar and Jena. She received voice training since 2008, and started studying classical singing in 2011, in Leipzig. She has since launched a career as singer in concert and opera, with appearances in Germany and throughout Europe.

The Performance

A very, warm, full-sounding voice, with a natural, not excessive vibrato, expressive, flexible and clear in the coloratura & ornaments, across the dynamic and tonal range, without problems in projecting across the orchestral accompaniment.

Rating: ★★★★


Angelo Pollak — Tenor (Arias)

Angelo Pollak grew up in Vienna, started his musical journey with playing cello and piano, at age 6. After finishing high school, started singing studies in Vienna, where he is currently completing his master studies. He has attended master classes with prominent artists, has launched an extensive career as opera singer, but is also active as singer in concert halls.

The Performance

Despite his apparent, partial indisposition, I found that Angelo Pollak has an excellent voice, projecting very well, with the right amount of metal (“ping”) in his timbre, radiant in the high register, flexible, with the right amount of urgency and drama for the aria (No.13) “Ach mein Sinn, wo willt du endlich hin” (Oh, my sense). For this aria, his vibrato sounded “right”. I was very impressed with this singer. His second aria, No.20, “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his blood-stained back), Pollak took back the drama switched to a wonderfully lyrical voice that effortlessly reached, even radiated in the high register.

Rating: ★★★★


Aleksander Nohr — Bass (Pilatus, Arias)

Aleksander Nohr is a Norwegian baritone who so far has been active in concert and opera, throughout Scandinavia. He finished his vocal studies in Copenhagen, in 2014. This concert marked his Zurich debut as oratorio singer, and he also started a career as Lied singer.

Pilatus

It’s not the first time that I wished that the singer representing Jesus had the voice of the one in the role of Pilatus (and/or singing the arias)! Sure, as Jesus, Aleksander Nohr would have been physically too dominant. And he definitely had the bigger voice (dominant, commanding in character) than Ludwig Mittelhammer: impressive in volume and timbre. Yet, in a dialog with the role of Jesus, he applied sufficient control, in order not to dominate excessively.

Arias

For the arias the soloists switched to a position next to the conductor. This not only helped the coordination with the orchestral accompaniment, but it also made a clear distinction / contrast to the “scenic” role—in this case, Pilatus. Nohr performed the beautiful No.19, his arioso (with the viole d’amore) “Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen” (Look, my soul, with anxious pleasure) with a wonderfully lyrical, well-balanced voice, retained, contemplative, with very limited vibrato (occasionally none at all, almost as in spoken language). Beautiful, touching! Similarly, No.32, the aria with choir “Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen” (My precious Savior, let ask you) turned into one of the true, touching highlights of the evening.

In both his roles, I clearly found Aleksander Nohr the most impressive voice among the vocal soloists in this performance.

Rating: ★★★★½


Florian Helgath

The conductor’s central role in this performance wasn’t in the concert, but in the preparation of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie. And there, the outcome of the concert speaks for itself (see above for details). Two years ago, when he took over the choir as chief conductor and artistic director, the ensemble already was in top shape. Florian Helgath has further consolidated the choir’s qualities, such as volume, dynamics, homogeneity, voicing, virtuosity in coloraturas / ornaments, diction, pronunciation, articulation, etc.—indeed, from the point-of-view of choir performance, I see nothing to criticize at all—congrats!

Interpretation: Tempo, etc.

Throughout the concert, Florian Helgath proved to have the feel for the “right”, the natural tempo. The word “right” seems to be a strange choice here. However, even without metronome annotation, Bach’s passion oratorio is so much embedded in our music culture, and so much dominated by the flow of the language, that the conductor has very little leeway in the tempo choice: even small “personal deviations” may feel sluggish or rushed. Certainly, the .tempo in the big choirs, as well as in the arias felt absolutely natural for the listener, but also fitted the character of the pieces. At the same time, the pace was “technically right” in allowing choir, soloists, as well as instrumentalists the proper articulation, flexibility, and “room to breathe”.

Interpretation: Chorales

Almost throughout, the chorales followed the natural flow of the underlying text, while also keeping a connection to community singing: I felt absolutely at ease with the flow of the language, of the music in the chorales. The one exception / deviation among the chorales was in the first one, No.3, “O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße” (O great love, o love beyond all measure), which retained somewhat of a “formal attitude”, with distinct phrasing by verse lines. Helgath seemed to take this as a “statement”, rather than an illustration, or an expression of the audience’s feelings towards the biblical narrative.

Interpretation: Turbae

The turbae ad the dramatic element to the music, representing actions and utterings of crowds of people, priests, Jesus’ followers, and a group of Roman soldiers. Ideally, some of these would be more effective if a very small choir was to perform them close to the audience (and by heart). Here, the distance between choir and audience was big enough to prevent in immediate interaction between choir and listener. So, one might claim that this made some of these turbae sound a bit “technical”, in that it created a certain “emotional distance”. Of course, I’m convinced that the singers put their heart into the performance, and it still was far better than if a huge (especially lay) choir were to perform in this role.

Orchestra / Conducting

Florian Helgath’s primary profession is that of conducting choirs not orchestras. One indication for this was that—different from most orchestral conductors—he was conducting upwards, i.e., the main beats were at the highest point of his arm movements (he did not use a baton). To the orchestra, this may feel unusual, but it obviously yielded excellent results with the choir singers. And the orchestra adjusted very well (with the help of Hannah Weinmeister and of Claudius Hermann, of course). Only occasionally (once or twice, maybe, and at the very beginning) I had the impression that Helgath’s choir conducting caused slight irritations with the orchestra, resulting in momentary confusion, slight divergences in the coordination.

Recitatives are a different matter, of course: Florian Helgath did not attempt to control, to conduct the recitatives throughout. Especially in the case of the evangelist, the singer was performing right next to the basso continuo. And there, the cooperation, the mutual interaction between Claudius Hermann (cello) and the singer was absolutely flawless.

Rating: ★★★★


Conclusions

With a work as complex as this, the “perfect” / “ultimate” performance is virtually impossible, even for CD recordings. There are so many parties involved (soloists, choir, orchestra, conductor), and all would need to be in top shape for a concert and a recording. The composition itself is so diverse, multifaceted that an overall score / rating is very crude and simplistic. Hence my attempt to rate the achievements by the various contributors. These ratings cannot be absolute, but reflect the artist’s current “shape”, the acoustics, the environment. I’m describing the overall experience for me as a listener, which also includes the visual component, the venue, the audience, the atmosphere.



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