Monday, February 25, 2013

Barrocade presents Bach's St John's Passion at Abu Gosh

The Barrocade Ensemble, joined by Nuove Musiche (Holland) and conducted by Shalev Ad-El, performed J.S.Bach’s St John’s Passion in February 2013. Vocal soloists were tenor Markus Ullmann (Germany) and Israeli singers – soprano Yeela Avital, alto Avital Dery and bass-baritones Oded Reich and Guy Pelc.  This writer attended the performance at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church in Abu Gosh on February 23rd 2013.  The Barrocade Ensemble, formed in 2007, numbers some 12 players, working together and cooperating in decisions as to performance; the Barrocade Ensemble frequently performs without a conductor. Although playing mostly Baroque- and Renaissance music, Barrocade also ventures into other musical styles, such as folk- and modern music as well as jazz.

Shalev Ad-El (b.1968, Ramat Gan) is one of Europe’s most sought after continuo players, harpsichord recitalists and conductors, also performing in North- and South America, the Far East and the USA. Teaching in many countries, he is a member of several European ensembles and is the musical director of Accademia Daniel (Israel).

Tenor Markus Ullmann (b. 1967, Dresden), whose teachers have included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is an opera singer, a recitalist, also performing as a soloist in orchestral concerts. Ullmann performs much Baroque music but not just: of late, for example, he has been involved in the first recording of the original version of Dvorak’s “Cypresses”.

Ensemble Nuove Musiche, established five years ago and centered in Helmond, Holland, performs Baroque-, Classical and Romantic repertoire and is the permanent ensemble in a project involving professional- and amateur musicians.

Bach’s St. John’s Passion BWV 245 was first performed on Good Friday of 1724, exactly one year following the composer’s appointment as cantor of St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig. It was written in two parts so a sermon could be held between them. The first scene takes place in the Kidron Valley and the second in the palace of the high priest Kaiphas. Bach draws on the Gospel of St John and St. Matthew of the Luther Bible as well as from a number of unknown sources providing arioso- and formal arias that gave voice to the emotional responses of the contemporary individual believer. The characters represented are the Evangelist (Ullmann), Christ (Pelc), Pilate (Reich), Peter and servants. The choir represents the crowd (in the second part delivering urgent, angry calls for blood) also punctuating the narrative and arias with Lutheran chorales that allow the audience to reflect on the drama. As Bach’s most controversial work, it is a work built around suffering, moral dilemmas and conviction; as a devout Lutheran, Bach believed in the sacramental function of music.

Situated tranquilly among olive trees atop a hill overlooking the town of Abu Gosh, the Kiryat Ye’arim Church of the Ark of the Covenant was becoming a beehive of activity on February 23rd as people entered to take their seats. At the front of the church, the eight members of Ensemble Nuove Musiche, placed behind the 13 Barrocade players, were joined by soloists Avital, Dery, Pelc and Reich for the opening and ending choruses of the work. From the very first notes of the monumental opening chorus, one became acutely aware of Shalev Ad-El’s reading of the work – as a somber, powerful, impactful piece, urgent and uncompromising in its manner and message. Tenor Markus Ullmann made for a very fine Evangelist as he drew the listener into the drama of the text, presenting the story in a bold, articulate manner that bristled with freshness, brightness of vocal color and rediscovery. The Evangelist’s demanding recitatives have Jesus’ name sung in the highest register, biblical prophesies are given dignified utterance and then there is reported speech.   Ullmann’s voice is richly hued and buoyant; he floats with ease through melismatic passages, his diction allowing every word to emerge with crystal clarity (some words uttered at a whisper) and his energy is unflagging. In the tenor arias, Ullmann addresses the text and emotional content of each, playing with the asymmetry of the grieving “Ach, mein Sinn” (Ah, my mind, where finally willst thou go?), to be joined by violinists Shlomit Sivan and Yasuko Hirata in the poignant “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his blood-tinged back). His evocative word-painting, for example as in “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly) in section 12, brings out the work’s expressive and compassionate content.  

In her true, unmannered style, Avital Dery’s portrayal of the sinner’s tormented conscience in the alto aria “Von den Stricken meinen Sünden (To unbind me from the shackles of my sins) was pleasing, the brightness and timbral beauty of the obbligato oboes (Ofer Frenkel, Shai Kribus) and bassoon (Gilat Rotkop) sometimes covering the alto voice. In “Es ist vollgebracht” (It is accomplished), with the delightful intermingling of the alto vocal line and the viola da gamba (Amit Tiffenbrunn), Dery held onto the tension of the first section, then following the dramatic and challenging middle section with a moving and compassionate reading of the ending section.

Soprano Yeela Avital gave a sympathetic and sensitive reading of the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (I follow you likewise with joyful steps), its childlike joy graced with obbligato flutes (Genevieve Blanchard, Na’ama Lion), (its tripping rhythm here actually creating a moment of dramatic irony) her well crafted, delicate singing of “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” (Dissolve then, heart, in floods of tears), also joined by flute, imbued with suffering.

Guy Pelc’s smooth, open yet full-bodied vocal sound, unencumbered by vibrato, is well suited to this genre. He takes on the calm confidence and resignation of the role of Jesus, weaving lines into the split-second timing of the brisk dialogue, creating some gripping moments. Pelc’s art of blending was especially effective in the plangent “Mein teurer Heiland” (My beloved Savior), his voice and the choir collaborating hand-in-glove in magical balance.

 Oded Reich was intense, powerful and convincing. As Pontius Pilate, he presented the character in a direct and authoritative manner. Bringing events to a head in the challenging “Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen” (Bass & Choro) he highlights key words of the solo, punctuated by the chorus’s dramatic interjected questions, his large, rewarding vocal reserve and dramatic flair lending intensity throughout;
‘Hurry, you tormented souls,
Leave your dens of torment,
Hurry – Where to? - to Golgotha!...’

Ensemble Nuove Musiche juggled its many chorus roles, from the “turba” (crowd) choruses – dramatic and sometimes jaggedly depicting the various groups involved in the story – high priests, the mob, soldiers - to liturgical chorales as well as to strategic choral pieces there to heighten- or relieve dramatic tension. These choral sections draw on the full spectrum of choral techniques. Comprising only eight singers, Nuove Musiche displayed oneness of intention, fine balance within itself and with the instrumentalists, flexibility, an ear to blending and the emotional range necessary for this work. The chorale “Durch dein Gefangnis” (Through your imprisonment) sung unaccompanied was a moment of floating and poignancy. Mellifluous and heartrending, the comforting c minor epilogue “Ruht wohl”, prior to the final chorale, was especially moving:
‘Rest in peace, O holy limbs,
Over which I no longer weep:
Rest in peace, and bring me to peace also.
The tomb that has been set aside for you
And contains no further distress
Opens the heavens to me and closes hell.’

With all strands held together by the Barrocade instrumentalists’ blended and well consolidated ensemble sound, Shalev Ad-El’s hallmark on the St John’s Passion was present throughout: his highly expressive (and sometimes unconventional) conducting language spoke of minute detail, shape, expressiveness and beauty of sound; contrapuntal lines interacted in articulate voice play.  He breathed life and meaning into the highly charged emotional canvas of the work, taking musicians and the audience through the captivating human drama.  This was performance at its best.   



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