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Sandals and Yoghurt?

Bach at the Berlin Philharmonie,
reviewed by CIARÁN McAULEY


Mustn't it be just one of those peculiar fads of the Early Music purists, with their sandals and their yoghurt? -- Roger Norrington

The B-minor Mass represents the summation of Bach's output, integrating new and previously composed material into an extended four movement structure. Written to commemorate the accession of Augustus III as King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, Bach later revised the work, structuring it according to the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, a remarkable choice for the devout Lutheran writing without commission.

Described both audibly and in essay form, Pure Tone was the crux of Norrington's recent B-minor Mass reading at the Philharmonie [12 October 2006, Berlin, Germany]. Tracing the development of orchestral vibrato and the performance expectations of composers, Norrington suggests that music up to Strauss or early Schönberg be performed with white tone. This was achieved to varied effect in the recent Berlin Philharmonic, RIAS Kammerchor collaboration featuring soloists Susan Gritton, David Daniels, John Mark Ainsley and Detlef Roth.

Norrington's interpretation was highly commendable, equally in the choral division of Can and Dec [Cantoris and Decani] as well as in selecting tempos suited to both Bach's polyphony and the dry acoustic of the Philharmonie. Furthermore, the Berlin Philharmonic assimilated the Pure Tone principal to wonderful effect, breathing professionalism into the performance.

Flute and oboe solos were particularly exquisite, as was the control of the brass in the upper registers. Even the slightly out of tune kettle drums and violin solo added the necessary human charm to this sublime musicianship.

This performance was, however, vocally poor. Line, projection and a common Latin pronunciation were lacking in a concert where melody was compromised by text.

Detlef Roth experienced difficulties in the lower registers of the Gloria and Susan Gritton and David Daniels struggled to reach an acoustic balance in their duets; Daniels' somewhat restrained technique being overpowered by Gritton's quick vibrato. Equally, the repeated mishandling of consonants and addition of sibilance on the part of the RIAS Kammerchor became somewhat stylistic during the course of the work. This, coupled with the 'washy soprano section', made for a distinctly average choral contribution.

Finally, Norrington suggests that 'Early Music Performance' is a performance style, rather than a dependence on period instruments. Whether the principals of Pure Tone are suited to the likes of Schönberg and Vaughan Williams remains to be seen, however it is exactly this spectacle which hopefully brings Sir Roger and his Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra to Berlin in the very near future.

Copyright © 18 October 2006 Ciarán McAuley, Berlin, Germany





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