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S & H Concert Review

J.S. Bach ‘Weinachtsoratorium’ Royal College of Music Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, dir. Peter Schreier. Friday January 10th 2003. (ME)

This performance of Bach’s great work, unseasonal though it might have been, was a perfect example of the kind of collaboration between a great musical ‘name’ and a group of emerging young stars so much needed in the London musical scene: all those who are privileged enough to be able to make their living by writing about music and who of late have been doing plenty of fulminating about the lack of involvement by young people in classical music, should have got themselves to St. John’s on Friday to see and hear a truly outstanding level of achievement by a very young cast, performed to one of the most ‘mixed’ audiences I have ever seen, with many of its members under 30.

Of course, it was Peter Schreier’s night: this great lyric tenor is now 68, and the results of a lifetime of devotion to Bach are plain for all to see and hear in his unsurpassed communication of recitative, his intimate understanding of the music and his love of imparting these both to performers and audience. It was entirely appropriate that Fellowship of the Royal Academy should have been conferred upon him at the end, since so many people including the present writer have learned so much from this true musician, so completely free of that gimmickry which bedevils so much of today’s music-making, and so utterly faithful to the spirit of the great composers.

It would be idle to pretend that Schreier’s voice is anything more than a shadow of what it was, at least in terms of tone and volume, but his management of the narrative still has few equals: in fact I can think of only one other tenor who so grippingly involves you in the story and who moves you so deeply with his intonation, and that is John Mark Ainsley who, of course, could easily be said to be one of Schreier’s protégés in that he chose him as his Evangelist for both the Passions when Schreier first began to direct them. In the recent ‘Weinachtsoratorium’ which Trevor Pinnock presented at the QEH, Ainsley sang both the Evangelist and all the tenor solos, a feat which Schreier did not, fortunately, attempt here – fortunately, because those fiendish arias are too much for any singer at this stage of a career, but also, of course, because he was directing the entire performance.

His direction was, obviously, fastidiously precise and wonderfully enthusiastic, but one was sometimes left with the feeling that performing the triple tasks of narrative, conducting and choral direction, exciting though it was to watch, had its drawbacks, and this was clearest in such parts as ‘Wie soll ich dich empfangen’ where the lines sagged in the middle: no one has eyes in the back of their head, and there are some things which even the greatest cannot manage, one of them being keeping tabs on a very young choir whilst you also direct a fairly complex instrumental passage and gear yourself up to sing a line like ‘Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn…’ This mattered little, however, given the animation, intensity and sharpness of Schreier’s approach, not to mention the presence in both choir and orchestra of some real future stars.

This was a very lively reading of the work, and the orchestra certainly had to run to keep up with the director, but run they did, and extremely skilfully. There were very few weaknesses in the playing, and amongst the many strengths I would single out the fluent, exquisitely toned playing of the Oboi d’amore by Alexander Koshelev and James Watts, heard to most advantage during ‘Erleuchtet auch mein finstre Sinnen,’ the exceptionally poised and confident first and second violins who gave the tenor soloist such eloquent support in ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben,’ the supple, assured continuo and, of course, the superb trumpets (Paul Munday, Peter Collins, Adam Juckes) who blazed out during ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ like the harbingers of the Day of Judgment.

The solo parts were divided amongst almost the entire choir, as is right for such a performance but can lead to a slightly fragmentary feeling, as well as a sense of guilt if one fails to mention all those who shone: however, there were many highly promising voices here and not one which did not deserve to be heard – one continues to marvel at the level of vocal achievement being reached at the RCM at present. Those of us who have been privileged to attend many RCM performances over the past two seasons will naturally have been aware of Jonathan Lemalu as one of the stars among the postgraduate students, but he is by no means alone, and if the likes of Andrew Kennedy, Richard Scott, Christine Marøy, Elin Thomas, Helen Massey, Jared Holt, James Harrison and Emily Benson do not join him on the concert circuit within the next year or two, I will be very surprised – and they were merely the cream of a very rich crop.

It is not easy for even the most experienced to launch that first big solo recitative and aria, but Richard Scott managed it without appearing too nervous, and his voice is truly lovely; this is not – yet – a very rich or dramatic counter-tenor, being soft and lyrically persuasive rather than forceful, but his phrasing is already assured and he showed a genuine feeling for the words, especially at ‘Den Schönsten, den Liebsten bald bei dir zu sehn.’ Jared Holt’s baritone is similarly fine-grained rather than heavy, but he sang the very demanding ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ in a manner which would not be out of place from most current German baritones, with crisp enunciation and confident runs. There was some wonderful singing of the alto parts, especially from Christine Marøy, some exquisite soprano work in both solos and ensembles, and not one of the other baritones was less than pleasing: I especially liked James Harrison’s warm timbre and fresh tone.

It must be daunting as well as gratifying for a young tenor to perform with someone like Schreier, but neither Thomas Walker nor Andrew Kennedy seemed intimidated. Thomas sang the very demanding ‘Frohe Hirten’ most creditably, and even though that terrifying seven-bar phrase at ‘Geht und labet Herz und Sinnen’ found him a little less than secure, this was still a promising performance. Andrew is probably the best known of the current crop of RCM postgraduates, since he has played several leading roles in their productions, and the equally taxing ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ was unsurprisingly entrusted to him. This is a tenor with confidence to spare – you need it, for this kind of music – and he presented the aria with gusto as well as very high musical excellence: there were a couple of smudged moments in the runs, but to look so closely at articulation is to judge at a very exalted level, and his singing was never less than fluent and beautifully phrased. Song lovers who can bear to prise themselves away from the Wigmore’s February Wolf-fest, or who would like something completely different in between the Fischer-Dieskau Masterclasses and the Bostridge/Goerne/Schäfer evenings, are strongly advised to go there to hear Andrew on Wednesday 12th, when he will perform music by Byrd, Gibbons and others, with Trevor Pinnock.

In conclusion, two unforgettable moments which summed up this evening: Schreier’s singing of the phrases ‘da das Kindlein war’ (‘where the child was’) and ‘wurden sie hoch erfreut’ (‘they were full of joy’) in the narrative about the visit of the three kings, which brought tears to my eyes with its tenderness and dramatic power, and the superb choral singing at the beginning of part five; for once, ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ (Let glory be sung to you, O God) actually sounded as though they meant it.


Melanie Eskenazi

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