Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Ton Koopman, Conductor, in Bach’s Magnificat and Two Leipzig Cantatas

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Ton Koopman

Ton Koopman

Lincoln Center presents Great Performers
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Mar. 15 at 7:30

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir
Ton Koopman, conductor

Teresa Wakim, soprano
Bogna Bartosz, alto
Tilman Lichdi, tenor
Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone

All-Bach program:

Du Hirte Israel, höre, Cantata BWV 104
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, Cantata BWV 147

Last September I attended a remarkable performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at Emmanuel Church in Boston under their admirable new Music Director, Ryan Turner, who is a singer and came to Emmanuel Music as a member of the chorus. By working his singers and instrumentalists into a deep literal and spiritual understanding of the score and giving them a great deal of expressive freedom, he revealed the spirit of the Mass in the most direct and moving way. In it, Bach plotted his course toward the happy state of the faithful Christian, who is blessed with some intimation or perhaps experience of the Kingdom of Heaven. On March 15 in Alice Tully Hall I shared in an equally life-affirming experience in a concert which explored other joyful aspects of Bach’s church music. While the approach of Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra was more historically conscious and intellectually distanced, the spirit of the music and its liturgical message came across no less vividly. It was in fact a joy in itself to hear some of Bach’s greatest music played and sung with such accuracy, sureness, and understanding.

Since Ton Koopman, then 25, founded the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in 1979, they have established a worldwide reputation not only for the scholarly authority of their Bach interpretations, but for the liveliness and sensitivity of their performances. Musically there is never an obstacle between their playing and even the most conservative listener (i.e. one prejudiced against historical performance) but everything they do respects the composer’s historical context, both in the function of the music and in style. Koopman’s approach to the cantatas and other liturgical music is founded on the cantatas’ function within the Liturgy of the Word. The scriptural quotations and verse of the cantatas were extensions of the biblical text assigned for a particular Sunday, intended as musical companions to the sermon. For that reason, it is crucial for soloists and chorus to respect the text’s meaning, as well as its rhetorical character and its relation to the Word of God. Hence diction must be perfectly clear and the syntactical shape of the lines as natural as plain speech. It holds as true for the Latin text of the Magnificat as for the German cantatas. Liturgical function informs the particular singing style which predominated on Thursday evening, which was gloriously plain in its clarity and naturalness. A listener less accustomed to this than to modern singing will be surprised to find more room for the espressivo in the accompaniment than in the vocal solo. With the fluent and musicianly playing of the ABO as an ensemble and as soloists, this sounds neither unnatural nor in any way limited or restricted. This interplay of word and melos was in itself captivating and provided ample scope for many touching and deeply moving moments.

Tempi were generally animated, but even in the richer contrapuntal passages, the textures and diction of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir were crisp and clear. This brings up the issue of their relation to the new Starr Theater at Alice Tully Hall. Last year, I noted my disappointment in the sound of Les Arts Florissants in the hall. There seemed to be a veil over the orchestra, and I was beginning to wonder if baroque and early music weren’t the weak spot of the hall. The ABO was bright, clear, and present, with all attacks and passing sonorities coming through. The lower strings, supported by the organ, were rich and solid in tutti and lithe and transparent in lighter textures. There is clearly no problem with the hall. The blended, sumptuous sound William Christie produces from Les Arts Florissants is apparently a trifle exaggerated in Starr. Did the ABO have to work harder than usual to project? One would have to ask one of the players. Their manner is energetic, in any case.

The question of baroque acoustics came up on this site recently in a discussion between a reader and Roza Tulyaganova in relation to a performance by Vivica Genaux and Europa Galante in Zankel Hall at Carnegie. I have only heard solo piano and 20th century music in Zankel, so I can’t really comment. My thought is that it would be somewhat dead for period instruments, but one can’t really say until one has heard a few instances of the kind there. Remembering Les Arts Florissants, I thought it a pity that New York doesn’t really have anything like New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston, which has all the resonance and liveness of a traditional chamber music hall, and one can savor a Renaissance lute or a clavichord there. In any case, even if I find it hard to imagine such intimate instruments on its stage, Alice Tully Hall served the ABO every well indeed.

The concert consisted of the familiar (and justly beloved!) D Major Magnificat, which Bach assembled in that form between 1732 and 1735, flanked by two cantatas from his first liturgical cycle, written in his first year at Leipzig, 1723-24. All three belong to the Lutheran liturgy. Martin Luther had a special fondness for Vulgate text of the Magnificat (Luke 1:44-55), Mary’s canticle, which she spoke on her visitation of her cousin, Elizabeth. He promoted it as “the chief song for all feasts” and found a place for it in the liturgy of Vespers. Lutherans, seemingly free from English Protestants’ aversion to the language of Rome, sang it either in Latin or in German. Bach’s original E Flat version of the Magnificat was also performed shortly after his arrival at Leipzig, in the Christmas Vespers of 1723, with interpolations suitable for the occasion. Almost a decade later, Bach transposed it down a half step into D Major and removed the Christmas interpolations. It is thought that it was first performed in this form on the Feast of the Visitation, July 2, 1733, that is, the first day on which festive music was allowed at the end of the official period of mourning for Augustus the Strong. As Raymond Erickson pointed out in his excellent program notes, to which I am indebted for much of this background, Bach clearly kept this brilliant and impressive work for special occasions, his first Christmas as Cantor of the Thomaskirche and the end of mourning for the more highly functional Saxon incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi being not least among them.

The cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) was also written—in its present form—for the Feast of the Visitation, but a decade earlier, in 1723, only a few months after his arrival in Leipzig. It is a reworking of a cantata of the same name (BWV 147a), which he wrote for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 1716, in his last year at Weimar, before he left for Cöthen. In the process, the texts were changed to suit the Visitation, a new aria was added (“Gebenedeiter Mund!”), and the score was modified to incorporate three differently-pitched oboes. The now 30-minute long cantata was split into two halves, one preceding and one following the sermon—a fairly common practice, reflecting the role of music as the handmaiden of the Word.

Du Hirte Israel, höre! (BWV 104) was first performed on Misericordia Sunday, the Second Sunday after Easter, April 23, 1724. For the occasion, it was based on John 10:11-16, which describes Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Hence pastoral rhythms and bagpipe-like drones are prominent in the score. Oboes, a tenor oboe (taille), and a pair of oboe d’amore further evoke the pastoral mood. The final chorale is a paraphrase of Psalm 23 in this most peaceful and comforting of Bach’s cantatas.

Hence the program encompassed both the lyrical, the brilliantly joyful, and the grand modes of Bach’s writing, requiring an array of trumpets and timpani in addition to aforementioned oboes, as well as recorders and traverse flutes. Ton Koopman’s active pulse and sprightly rhythms were easily able to encompass the more lyrical passages as well as the lively polyphonic choruses, which benefitted immensely in clarity, for example, the Omnes generationes. The quality of the instrumental playing was astonishing in itself. The Concertmaster, Catherine Manson, and First Cello, Werner Matzke, brought off some impressive virtuosity as well as espressivo playing of the highest beauty, and the same could be said of the wind soloists and the three trumpet players, who were also able to sing as well as excite with their splendid instruments. Modern instruments entirely lack the peculiar combination of grit and glow of the varieties of trumpet available to Bach, and we are not accustomed to hear this order of playing in this country. The duet of traverse flutes in the Esurientes, played by Marion Moonen and Brian Berryman, was even more astonishingly beautiful. The evening would have been an exciting experience if it had only been a virtuoso affair, but the musicians never lost sight of Bach’s pith. The ABO is truly an orchestra of soloists, who play with an understanding and personal commitment one rarely hears even in the greatest modern orchestras.

Two of the singers, Bogna Bartosz, alto, and Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone, have sung with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra for many years. They are prominent in the great set of recordings of the complete cantatas of about a decade ago, and they are thoroughly at ease with the particular performance style described above. Ms. Bartosz sings with a handsome, well-balanced alto voice, which is flexible and not overly resonant or plummy in its lower registers. It is perfectly suited for the neatly turned, elegantly shaped phrasing and textual clarity required by Koopman’s treatment. Her effortlessness enabled her to focus on the shape and fine points of the music. There was also an admirable effortlessness in Klaus Mertens’s singing. His coloratura parts were always clean, on pitch, and articulated with assurance and style. Sounding more like a baritone than a bass, his tawny upper and middle range was exceptionally beautiful and flowed nicely into his rich lower voice. It is clear enough that Mr. Mertens is a mature singer, but his voice sounded fresh and open, always with rock-solid support, like that of a much younger man. Tenor, Tilman Lichdi, is much younger singer, still fairly close to the beginning of his career, was also perfectly at home in Koopman’s Bach, and he brought a virtuosic flair to it of his own, not to mention the extraordinary golden timbre of his voice. His florid passages were perfectly flexible, full in tone, and on the note, and his espressivo lines were eloquent and musical, never distorting either rhythm or diction. Teresa Wakim, whom I have reviewed most enthusiastically in her performances for the Boston Early Music Society, unfortunately, seemed rather ill-at-ease and constrained by the performance style. Her voice seemed naturally to want to float long, arching phrases in its crystalline upper register and went against the grain a bit, and the regularity of the rhythm and tightness of ensemble seemed to inhibit her. Her lower register failed to project at times, especially in her busier passages. That said, her melodic flights were a delight to hear in themselves. Of the four singers, she used the least vibrato, making a serious challenge of her exposed high lines, but, as she executed them, they were a marvel of perfect intonation and pure tone. She is clearly more in her element with the conductorless BEMF Orchestra and new to Koopman’s tight ship. With time, she may well work her way into it. She was also very much at home and in top form in the Emmanuel B Minor Mass under Ryan Turner mentioned at the beginning of this review.

Ton Koopman’s music-making is precise and vigorous, but it is never rigid. The discipline comes from the outstanding abilities of the orchestra and chorus and the unanimity they have developed from years of working together. He and his musicians have created one of a handful of leading approaches to the interpretation of Bach today. While it was moving in itself to hear this supreme music played with such understanding and virtuosity, there was deep understanding behind the perfection, and it was most moving to hear Bach speak to us so directly.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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