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S & H Concert Review

Bach, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Veracini; Angelika Kirchschlager, Venice Baroque Orchestra, dir. Andrea Marcon. Barbican Hall, May 14th 2003. (ME)


The Barbican’s ‘Great Performers’ series is of course based around attracting big names, mostly singers, mostly good-looking, who in turn attract big audiences to see, and, perhaps less important, hear them. Glamour is number one in the musical establishment these days, with hordes of critics turning out to drool over selections of bleeding chunks by the latest consonant-less cutie whilst passing by serious performances of whole works: whilst this mezzo-of-the-moment is not consonant-less, (but certainly cute) her offering of bites of Bach interspersed with snippets of other composers was not, to put it very kindly, at the level of her Lieder singing and her operatic performances. It is interesting to note that just about every critic in town was present for this concert largely consisting of extracts of Bach cantatas sung by a singer whose voice is unsuited to them, and played by instrumentalists whose intonation and ensemble might best be described as ragged, whereas when Matthias Goerne, arguably the greatest singer of Bach around today, sang the complete cantatas as they should be performed, accompanied by, amongst others, arguably the world’s greatest oboist, Albrecht Mayer, barely a critic was in evidence.

I have previously written about the unsuitability of Ian Bostridge’s voice for the Bass cantatas of Bach, and the same thing applies to Kirchschlager: Bach conceived the voice of God to be that of a Bass, and this music, at once world-weary, deeply affectionate and full of consoling strength, needs a bass voice to sing it, and no matter how lovely the light tenor or genuine mezzo-soprano, it cannot compare to the voice for which the music was intended. ‘Schlummert ein’ is the central aria of BWV82, ‘Ich habe genug’ and it needs to be sung in the context of its recitatives and of ‘Ich freue mich,’ and extracting it as a showpiece does no service either to the music or the performers. Kirchschlager’s voice is undeniably beautiful, and her intonation very moving, but she simply did not have the vocal heft to ride the instruments here, and she was not helped by the very soupy playing. The same was true of ‘Vergnügte Ruh’ where the voice merged smudgily into the orchestra, and the runs were too faint to be faithful to the musical line. ‘Herr was du willt’ fared rather better in terms of the singer’s ability to place her notes where they belonged, but she did not have enough power behind them to convey the requisite joy.

It was such a pity that the lutenist was placed at the centre of the staging, as opposed to the singer being in that position, since this not only exacerbated her merging into the orchestra but also drew attention to some highly questionable technique on the part of the instrumentalist: I’m no expert on the lute but I’m pretty sure that Karl-Ernst Schröder, say, does not wield and pluck it as though he were a reincarnation of Blind Willie McTell about to launch into ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.’ ‘Wiederstehe doch der Sünde’ suffered particularly in this regard.

When it came to the pieces which Bach actually wrote for her tessitura, Kirchschlager was on much firmer ground, and she produced some truly lovely singing in ‘Bereite dich, Zion,’ although ‘Erbarme dich’ was sadly unmoving: as with the cantata extracts, context is vital here, as in fact is a solo violin of confident, grand, melancholy power, and all of these were missing.

Of the orchestral snippets the less said the better. Veracini’s Overture in G minor was polished but rather turgid, Vivaldi’s G minor Concerto only really came to life in the Allegro, and the latter’s D minor oboe concerto and Albinoni’s A minor were toe-tappingly pleasant – but then, that may well have been the level at which one was supposed to receive this concert.


Melanie Eskenazi



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