Wednesday 2 January 2013

Cantatas by the calendar

I guess what triggered the cantata-hunt this time was having to miss out on the Trinity College Choir/OAE St John’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on the Saturday before Christmas (I was pledged to a marvellous party instead, though we did get to the classiest of Messiahs in the same mini-festival the following evening). So on the day we turned to John Eliot Gardiner’s recording and I realized it could be parcelled out over six days’ worth of what in effect are discrete cantatas. After three days, that meant cheating slightly by leaping forward prematurely to the Feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s Day, the deed illustrated in Bellini’s lovely painting above), the first Sunday of the year and Epiphany.

Snip-day itself marked a proper start, which I intend to follow each Sunday, or as close to it as schedules allow (it’s a good way of getting to know the church calendar, too). I had three options, and the one most readily to hand was BWV 41, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, in Masaaki Suzuki’s BIS recording with the Bach Collegium Japan. That entailed going back a decade from the mid-1730s cornucopia of the Christmas Oratorio to the Leipzig chorale cycle of 1725. Maybe there’s nothing as giddying as the weird harmonic progressions at the start of the Oratorio’s Epiphany cantata, but the treasury of obbligato solos is here, too, and one short but telling combined recitative where the bass is dramatically amplified by an urgent chorus on the line ‘Der Satan unter unsre Füße treten’ (‘May Satan be trodden under our feet’).

Unlike the oratorio, there’s no narrating Evangelist, so nothing about the snip ceremony (Signorelli's version above). Instead, this is a straightforward thanksgiving celebration of the new year, beginning with a 16th century hymn melody embroidered by three exultant trumpets and three oboes as well as leaping strings and continuo. Its novelty is an adagio episode when the chorus reflects on having ‘in good peace’ fulfilled the old year. The oboes adorn the soprano aria; to accompany the tenor’s central sentiments Bach asked for a cello piccolo, which Suzuki tells us was played laterally by a first violinist. His version uses a small five-stringed cello. Here’s the complete cantata in the old Harnoncourt recording on YouTube

Our quiet January the First turned out serendipitously well. The New Year’s Day concert from Vienna was a bit of a damp squib, without the esprit of Jansons or even Mehta (quite a pleasant surprise a couple of years ago), and certainly nowhere near the classic Carlos Kleiber or Karajan experiences. I can’t make Franz Welser-Möst out: he’s quite an elegant conductor, but Danube water rather than blood seems to flow in his veins. No comparison, then, with Kleiber's 1989 or 1992 concerts, both of which are absolutely complete on YouTube. I've been listening to the sound recording of the second, and recommend especially the ideal waltz, which as so often comes from Josef rather than Johann I or II: Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, beginning at 14'40.

Yesterday we had ze laughing, Austrian style, in the one 'comedy' routine of the programme proper – FWM self-consciously dolling out pertinent toy animals and a Valkyrie helmet, inter alia, to the orchestral soloists in the interminable Carnival in Venice variations (weren’t they more fun a couple of years ago?). And the percussionists' lame dialogue in the encore Plappermäulchen Polka, my favourite thanks to the lines we gave it on holiday in Venice with the godson and his little chatterbox sister, felt uncomfortable too. Verdi's Don Carlos ballet frolic put some of the Strausses' tamer stuff into the shade, including a dull Quadrille on mostly banda stuff from Macbeth and Rigoletto amongst others. I learnt one thing – that one of Stravinsky’s two ballerina-moor waltzes in Petrushka comes from Lanner's otherwise dreary Styrian Dances. The women count in the orchestra remains lamentable and inexcusable - two violinists sharing a back desk, harpist and third flute were all I saw (though that's considerably more than in the 1992 concert above).

The day was bright, so we walked from South Ken up to the meeting of the parks, around the Serpentine and via the human zoo of the Winter Wonderland to Marble Arch. J’s long expressed desire to see the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, was thwarted at the Odeon here, but we found it was on at Whiteley’s so continued the walk westwards and arrived just in time. Mendes's accomplished direction was much what I expected, the obligatory opening chase crowned by bikes on the roof of Istanbul's Covered Bazaar, but graced throughout by a Henry IV Part Two feeling of ‘I grow old’, and requiring the ever-dependable Dame Judi to be more than her previously cool M. The consummate performance in a good line up, though, surely comes from Javier Bardem, funny and hugely charismatic, out- (but not over-)acting our muscular but battered hero.


Unknown said...

Hello David. I haven't commented before on your blog but I've been a regular enough follower to be mindful of your absences in 2012, and like others I wish you all the very best; thank you for the particularly thoughtful and brave entry of 31 December.

I haven't yet seen yesterday's NYDC, but your comments chimed very much with my experience: in my mind's eye (ear?)I can't help thinking that everything has been downhill since 1987/1989/1992. I often play the 1992 Nicolai when in need of a pick-me-up.

Am in right in remembering that Bernstein was originally lined up to conduct the 1991 concert? What would that have been like, I wonder? I'm sure a return from Abbado would be worthwhile. I imagine Chailly or John Eliot Gardiner (no relation) could be interesting, too, and I've no doubt a punt (unlikely on the VPO's behalf) on Vladimir Jurowski or Vasily Petrenko would be mutually beneficial. I'm thinking perhaps no to Gergiev, but a certain spirit of mischief makes me long to hear and see Temirkanov or Rozhdestvensky on the podium before it's too late.

But nobody will have the authority of Karajan, a benevolent and curiously touching despot in 1987, or the exciting, super-sensitive elan of Kleiber in 1989/92.

Maybe I won't watch yesterday's concert after all...

David said...

Delighted to hear from you, John, and season's greetings to you. Funnily enough JEG was conducting his own New Year concert in Venice, mostly Italian operatic fare but with Tchaikovsky's Little Russian Symphony as its centrepiece. We even had an e-mail discussion about which version, the original or the revision - made in Italy, I seem to remember - he'd be conducting. I'm curious to know.

I don't remember reading that about Lenny in Burton's biog, but how amazing it would have been in the light of his VPO Rosenkavalier, which, drawn out though it is, I love to bits. Abbado would be the greatest, but I think he overwinters in Venezuela now for the sake of his fragile health. Rozhdestvensky would be the maverick of choice, especially as he used to feature Shostakovich's arrangement of the Excursion Train Galop in his programmes and among his encores.

Laurent said...

I do like Kleiber's style of conducting and indeed Dorfschwalben aus Österreich is a classic waltz. His style reminds me of Riccardo Muti, it flows with the music. In Dorfschwalben aus Österreich he is dancing, for the orchestra this must be a great way to feel the music and tempo. For the public it is also wonderful to have a conductor who is enjoying himself and the music.

David said...

I know - it's rare to have that AND the most incredible conducting technique/rubato combined. But even with Mariss they were smiling much more than this year.

Susan Scheid said...

I have no good reason for it really, but I have always thought Welser-Möst a bit inscrutable. We didn't take in the New Year's concert here, and generally the holiday slid by us a bit, what with head colds the first week of it. It has been a cozy and restful period, though, with a scattering of outings, including a nice walk in the snowy landscape here today. Looking ahead, while Bard is in Budapest (somehow I can't get over that!), it appears that Great Britain is in New York, for Juilliard's Focus festival's subject is “The British Renaissance.” Michael Zev Gordon will be here for a panel and with a piece in one of the concerts, and the closing concert is to be conducted by Wigglesworth with pieces by Tippett, Knossen, Turnage, and Britten. It's tricky to get tickets—you have to be in NYC on the day tickets first become available to have a real chance at it, but I’m hoping I can find a way.

David said...

I know you'll have made good use of it, Sue, and I love the connections by which great Hilary was part of your 'program(me)'. Our colds - mine has gone into my right ear, blow it, and J's to his chest - remain, but we've done and enjoyed a lot simply by staying more or less put.

By Wigglesworth I hope that's mighty Mark and not limited Ryan...if the former, is it with the BBCSO? In which case let me know if you need help with the tx.

Susan Scheid said...

The mighty Mark it is, though he'll be conducting the Juilliard, not BBCSO. You're lovely to offer such a thing, in any event. I will be in NYC earlier that week & am thinking, if need be, to stay an extra day to snag some tix.

May you and yours have the head colds behind you soon! We are all going to have a very good time in 2013, I just know it!

Howard Lane said...

The waltzes became wearisome but the polkas perked up, (heard on a car radio, en route to a country walk as it was such a sunny NYD following an unremittingly awful NYE), and the trashy percussion - what was that about? And I speak as one who is partial to many and various percussive allsorts. I didn't mind the Carnival variations, as it was always the theme tune for the late great Fred Dibnah.

Oddly it was the second mention of Styria in one day - its capital Graz hosting a triumphant Salome as described in The Rest Is Noise, which I'm reading for the first time. I noticed the Petrushka tune although I didn't hear Petroc Trelawney refer to it.

Our sunny walk was lovely if chilly and I wish I had more chances for such spiritually uplifting access to the countryside. Your previous post was a moving and brave one and I hope your upwards journey continues ever upwards as I'm sure it will with all the love and support you have.

Your e-card was hilarious and as I think you know an amazing coincidence that we had just seen a play of the film! Well it is loosely based on A Christmas Carol so I suppose being seasonal the odds weren't quite so low. May your colds be banished and health fully restored!

David said...

Well, the percussion is part of Josef S's chatterbox design; it was just the competitive scenario so feebly acted out that rendered it embarrassing.

Graz is such a beautiful city - we went there when it had become European City of Culture and was full of wonderful installations. Plus we saw a Parsifal with freund Peter singing his first Gurnemanz in the Opera House, a lovely intimate size. Ryanair fly there: you have to walk across fields of pumpkins - pumpkinseed oil being a Styrian speciality - if you want to catch the train into town.

Looking forward to seeing y'all this year.

David Damant said...

In my favourite seat at the Royal Opera House - in the stalls circle virtually on the stage - I could see the wonderful Charles Mackerras leaping about like a 30 year old ( when he was 50 years older than that) and with his face lightening up when a passage he really liked was about to arrive. But with my "austere detachment" preference for everything I suppose I liked just as much the also late Gunther Mann who - admittedly when conducting his own orchestra and his speciality, Brahms - merely raised a hand and twiddled a finger. And " under such a baton even Brahms is impressive " The origin of that quotation it would be imprudent to reveal.

Bruce MacRae said...

A belated Happy New Year to you, David, from Bruce & Colin. Being alone over the holidays (C was en famille) I started a (chronological by date of composition) Bach cantata marathon of my own. Last Christmas it was the Ring and I needed a new, less taxing holiday "project" this time. I became joyously bogged-down conducting a compare-and-contrast exercise, thanks to Spotify, between the various cycles and the sundry one-off recordings and as a result I haven't even bested 1715 yet. So it's morphed into a year-long project. Pluswhich I just discovered that there are entire performances of some cantatas on YouTube (e.g. Koopman / Wachet Auf). Sigh. But it's all such wonderful stuff, there could be far worse ways to spend one's time, no? So many fabulous obbligatos (obbligati?) and arias. Bit of a pity about the quality of the texts, but I'm determined not to let that get in the way of enjoyment. I find JSB's word-painting engrossing at times; there's a choral passage in BWV150 setting "leite mich" where the voices do ladder/strive upwards towards something worthy - very beautiful.

Thank you for the expression "Snip Day" - made me smile from ear to ear!

David said...

Delighted to see you here, Bruce, and to hear of your much more ambitious parallel project. It's amazing how much there is on YouTube - I've found complete performances of my first three (though still prefer my Gardiners). I'm actually buying classical CDs for the first time in ages, such a sucker am I for the presentation of the Bach Pilgrimage series.

J suggested I should amend to 'Snipcock Day', but I thought that might be one step too far...