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The Passion According to Neil


12 June 2013, on Wednesday, at the Radio Hall
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACHMatthäus Passion, BWV 244
Conductor: Neil Thomson, The Radio Chamber Orchestra and the Radio Academic Choir (conducted by Dan Mihai Goia)
Adela Zaharia (s), Mihaela Ișpan (a), Tony Bardon, Tiberius Simu (t), Marius Boloș (b)

The end of the season for the Radio Chamber Orchestra meant the essential Bach oratorio, a choice that I find highly inspired. It was a concert that deserved a packed hall, but, unfortunately, half of the seats were empty… What a pity! In a few months, for the Enescu Festival, even the Palace Hall will seem too small. How did we get here? This time, for once, I did not respect my habit of not writing  an early review, precisely because the importance of Matthäus Passion is so big that, in comparison, The Brandenburg Concertos or other instrumental compositions by Bach seem to be just harmless toys.

The concert was very good. Let us put aside all the things that we could discuss about: the impossible to explain cuts in the text, of nearly half of the composition (are we in the ’50 of musical experiments, when Karajan recorded Nozze di Figaro without recitatives?), the pretty big choir (around 60 persons, who did not synchronize perfectly with the chamber orchestra), the completely careless diction (admirable exception: Tony Bardon), we should not require perfection when ourselves, the audience, we were so few… In fact, all these imperfections are not so important as they might seem from their listing here. Let us also forget the unbelievable lack of general knowledge that produced the omission of a syllable from the declamation Eli, Eli, lama sabahtani? (I need to study more this –  I can hear the same words on Herreweghe’s recording too !?)

Let us instead admire Adela Zaharia, excellent in almost everything she sang, starting with Blute nur, du liebes Herz! (No.8)/Bleed on, dear heart and up to the last lines of the last recitative, Habt lebenslang/While life lasts. She was exemplary, by her involvement, her compassion, her pathos, her innocence, but, at the same time, she did not exaggerate her expressivity and she stayed in the limits of the sense Bach had wanted. And while the music was advancing, mainly in the second part, Mihaela Ișpan too seemed more and more involved, so that the well known aria Erbarme dich (No.39)/Have mercy became one of the (many) memorable moments of the night. The violin solo accompanying this aria made me understand even better why the XIXth century Romantics claimed Bach as one of theirs. Here, pathetism crossed the boundaries of the church, and entered the concert hall, the outside world, now accustomed to the great enthusiasms, to the great emotions, but also to the immense totalitarian tragedies.

Adela Zaharia și Mihaela Ișpan (c) Robert Zaharia

Adela Zaharia și Mihaela Ișpan (c) Robert Zaharia

I will remember the Academic Choir in its most beautiful moments. When the tempo allowed the unfolding of the entire choral mass, the dramatism stood out in the most moving way. Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (No.62)/ When once I must depart is only one of the best examples.

Neil Thomson’s balance – we have already got used to it, to this high level, very good taste routine. His attention, his respect for the music, fortunately placed midway between the classical and the baroque manners, stressing what is worth stressing, but without perverting the preclassical essence, avoiding theology, but without denying it, taking music as the first choice, but without forgetting God…

Tony Bardon – despite a fatigue in the voice, that seemed more visible towards the end, he was the most eloquent  of all those present on stage. At a certain moment, the thought struck me that Matthäus Passion should be presented with the Evangelist’s recitatives in Romanian. Not only because we don’t have the education of sacred music, but we also miss the meaning of the words, that Bach never ever missed. Because the story is good, from the beginning to the end, proclaimed by only one, a tenor, the witness, of course, but the least impartial of all witnesses, whose voice, by its emotion, by its affectations, and also by its effects (and they are enough, incredibly expressive, but mainly full of vocal virtuosity) has the mission to repatriate these believers, by means of sympathy, in the places and in the grief of the event. (André Tubeuf – Dictionnaire amoureux de la Musique, Plon, 2012) After the  dialectical materialism of the communism, which was followed by a period of mystical exaltation (is there any  contemporary Romanian essayist who did not write at least an article, if not an entire book about angels, faith, or God in the ‘90s?), we are practicing today useless precautions, as we explore the political correctness. The spectators are the victims of the lies about Bach.

Beyond […] historical excesses and accidents, the current perception of Bach Passions in the concert hall remains a fatally aesthetic one. On several occasions, the programs do not include the text, which, because of the low accessibility of German, should be accompanied by a translation. […] The musicians of nowadays are not called to impose the religious dimension of Bach music of this type, but, on the other hand, they cannot ignore it either. And it is not because of personal spiritual options, but because of professionalism. One cannot listen to Matthäus-Passion as one listens to a symphony. Beyond the unexpected harmonies, the savant counterpoint overlapping and beyond genius melodic motives, there is the conscious and assumed religious living. For Bach, art is never a purpose in itself. Starting from here, music can also be understood, not only tasted. The question and the challenge that Bach launches today are related to our capacity of claiming and following a moral purpose in the aesthetic universe. (Mihai Cojocaru – Matthäus Passion, astăzi – Observatorul cultural, 2009)

The crucifixion, presented almost entirely, closed the night in an atmosphere with more and more emotional tension. And not only because Picander’s libretto fatally stops before the Resurrection. But also because the last sounds, those of the chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (Nr. 68)/We sit down in tears and call, can leave nobody indifferent. And even less myself, as I was surprised to wipe a tear while I was writing on the libretto a final impression for this extraordinary concert.

P.S. Photos, as usual, by Romeo Zaharia.

The bilingual libretto, German-Romanian, with the translation made by Mr Vladimir Popescu-Deveselu, can be found here: Libret – Matthaus Passion RO.

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