Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs J.S.Bach's Mass in B minor under Andrew Parrott

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s festive performance at the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre March 14th 2011, of J.S.Bach’s Mass in B minor was dedicated to the memory of Aharon Kidron, who had been general director of the JBO for a decade. Aharon, who passed away two weeks prior to the concert, was a source of inspiration for the musicians and for all who worked in directing the orchestra and advancing its cause.

In “The Kantor, the Kapellmeister and the Musical Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor” Christoff Wolff speaks of the Mass in B Minor as a kind of specimen book of Bach’s finest compositions in every kind of style, from the “stile antico” of Palestrina in the “Credo” and “Confiteor” and the expressively free writing of the “Crucifixus” and “Agnus Dei”, to the supreme counterpoint of the opening “Kyrie”, to the modern style in “galant” solos of the “Christe eleison” and “Domine Deus”. The Bach manuscript, in the Berlin State Library, is in four sections and was most likely put together by the composer at the very end of his life. It was bought in 1805 by the Zurich collector and publisher Georg Nageli, publicized by him as “the greatest musical artwork of all times and all peoples”.

In his book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000), Andrew Parrott, one of today’s foremost Bach scholars, discusses the original performance conventions of Bach’s choral works, explaining that Bach used expert vocal quartets (or quintets) rather than large choirs to perform both choral- and solo sections. In the above-mentioned performances in Israel (also in Tel Aviv) the main quintet - sopranos Claire Meghnagi, Revital Raviv, mezzo-soprano Petra Noskaiova (Slovakia), tenor Nicholas Mulroy (UK), baritone Yair Polishook – was reinforced by a second quintet – sopranos Avigail Gurtler, Carmit Natan, alto Avital Deri, tenor David Nortman, bass-baritone Oded Reich – in certain choral movements. This performance of the Mass in B minor, the first by an Israeli ensemble on authentic instruments, boasted a resplendent line-up of players and instruments, including fine woodwinds and brass, with David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and director, playing the organ. At times, the fine details of the singers’ lines were not heard clearly enough above the orchestra, with the second quintet also placed further back. This seems to have been more of a problem (from hearsay only) in the Henry Crown Hall than in the smaller auditorium of the Enav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. Where singers were placed across the front of the stage - as in the Sanctus and Osanna - they were more easily audible. Sopranos Claire Meghnagi and Revital Raviv, both with delightful voices, tended not to match and blend in color or strength. In “Laudamus te” (We praise you), Revital Raviv was drowned out by the orchestra..

Still, Parrott was mixing his rich and varying palette of vocal- and instrumental colors throughout, to the delight of the eager audience that occupied every seat of the Henry Crown Hall. To mention some of the highlights, the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who carries the sins of the world) was haunting with the flute duo (Idit Shemer, Sarah Paysnick) soaring above. In “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (Who sits at the right hand of the Father) oboist Aviad Gershoni and mezzo-soprano Petra Noskaiova collaborated in a superb and subtle blend of sounds and gestures. One of the evening’s highlights was the “Quoniam to solis sanctus” (For You alone are holy) sung by Yair Polishook, with the obbligato line played by Anneke Scott (UK) on natural horn. Scott’s alacritous and spirited playing never hints at the technical challenges and problems of intonation of that feisty valveless horn. With the flute obbligato role in the capable hands of Idit Shemer, British tenor Nicholas Mulroy performed the Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) with compassion and humility, his warm, golden vocal timbre reaching out to move the audience. With the joyful “Osanna”, Petra Noskaiova’s devout and modest rendition of the “Agnes Dei” (Lamb of God) and the majestic “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace) the work draws to a close and the audience is left deep in thought and touched by the sheer greatness and beauty of the Mass in B minor.

Not to be ignored was the fine performance of the JBO and its guest instrumentalists, led competently and sensitively by violinist Boris Begelman. Trumpeters Hans-Martin Rux (Germany), Almut Rux (Germany) and Richard Berlin added color and joy to the work. Parrott’s mammoth undertaking was received enthusiastically by Israeli audiences who opened their minds to a new approach to Bach’s choral works.

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