Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Israel Chamber Orchestra opens its 2016-2017 season with J.S.Bach's Mass in B-minor

Maestro Ariel Zuckermann (photo: Felix Broede)
The Israel Chamber Orchestra opened its 2016-2017 season - “Colors Worth Hearing” - with J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor BWV 232. The work was conducted by Ariel Zuckermann, the ICO’s musical director. Soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi, alto Avital Dery, tenor Eitan Drori and bass Raimond Nolte (Germany). Joining them was the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (director: Stanley Sperber). This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 13th 2016.

Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last years of his life in Leipzig compiling parts of previously-composed works, mostly from his cantatas (the practice of “parody”) into his last great composition – the Mass in B-minor. Composed over 15 years, certain sections had been performed, but less than a year after completing it, Bach died, never to hear it performed in its entirety. Not only does the work include Bach’s study of several musical styles – coordinating style of the past and the future in the High Baroque, stile antico and the Galant style - its spiritual agenda would subtly but surely have some connection with the history of his own personal religious dilemmas as a Lutheran and his position regarding Lutheran Protestantism of his day.

With Zuckermann’s performance of the B-minor Mass, we are not talking about performance on period instruments or of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott’s one-to-a-part approach for the singing of choruses. An ambitious undertaking, the work is so universal that what is essential to any conductor taking on the challenge is to understand how perfect the piece is and how to present its detail, its fusion of styles and its meaning, which extends far beyond that of a sacred Baroque work. In my opinion, performing and hearing the B-minor Mass presents as much interest for instrumentalists as it does for singers; Zuckermann led his orchestra in playing that was secure, supportive, articulate and elegant. We heard some splendid playing from the wind sections and there were several beautifully rendered obbligato parts enriching the various arias.  The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, boasting four strong sections, gave crystal-clear expression to fine detail, complex melodic strands and the work’s extensive use of counterpoint. At times, the choral sopranos tended to emerge a little too dominant. The fragmenting of words in the opening Kyrie, probably in the name of clarity, was somewhat baffling. In contrast to the vibrant energy of some of the more dramatic choruses, with the choir’s enunciating of consonants energizing phrases and meaning, the subtle and moving expression in such choruses as the “Qui tollis” (Gloria), the “Credo in unum Deum” (Credo) or in the colliding, tragic dissonances of the “Crucifixus” was hauntingly cushioned in lush, velvety harmonies.

Vocal solos and duets were dealt with well, if not always grippingly. Claire Meghnagi and Avital Dery’s very different styles and timbres did not make for felicitous dueting. Meghnagi and Eitan Drori found more common ground in the “Domine Deus”, with Drori and flute obbligato compatible in the “Benedictus”. Guest bass-baritone Raimond Nolte’s singing was attentive, his upper register pleasingly mellifluous. But, of all the soloists, it was alto Avital Dery who was the most engaging in her truly outstanding interpretation, her communication with the audience and her highlighting of the profound emotional content of each aria. With Maestro Zuckermann’s interest in articulacy, the most complex, multi-layered contrapuntal textures were never unintelligible under his direction. He led all in a performance that bristled with freshness, poise and luxuriance.

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