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Magnificat - If today were tomorrow and yesterday today
Music by JS Bach
Choreography by Heinz Spoerli
Zurich Ballet
Orchestra La Scintilla
Zurich Opera/Marc Minkowski
rec. Zurich Opera House, February 2012

This DVD is a visually arresting and often very interesting dance interpretation of some of Bach’s music. Heinz Spoerli, the choreographer, claims to have been influenced by the element of faith that lies at the heart of the Magnificat, and the booklet goes to rather tortuous (and esoteric) lengths to explain his vision and his reason. To be honest, though, it lost me after the first couple of paragraphs: this is a work to be enjoyed on its own terms, not for any greater sense of “meaning”. 

The ballet tells no story, but nor is it entirely abstract. There are suggestions of relationships and strivings, together with joy and sufferings, but it works best when you see it as a visual response to Bach’s music. I liked the way that a lot of thought had been given to the transition between the different sections. The opening, for example, is a fairly cold, austere dance, flushed with blue, to accompany the Allemande from the Partita for Solo Flute BWV 1013. This then melds beautifully into an ebullient, attention-grabbing, rose-coloured take on Brandenburg No. 3. Group activity and interaction predominate here where the opening had been individualistic and coldly graceful.
Sometimes the movements on stage act as a graceful parallel to the music in the pit (such as Brandenburg 3), but sometimes the music acts as a jumping-off point for something else. The dance that goes with the Adagio from the first violin sonata, for example, is like a sultry tango, as if the music is unlocking some unexpressed passion of deep intensity. Some might think it sacrilegious, but I found it rather effective, one work of art influencing another without being constrained by it. Another movement from the sonata, the Siciliana, is accompanied by a beautifully graceful dance for two men who sometimes act as one another’s mirror image and sometimes as each other’s extension. This then melts into a heartfelt, silky take on the opening aria of Ich habe genug, for me the finest thing on the DVD, mainly because the dancers’ lines seem mysteriously to be a natural reflection of the sinuous but profound reflection of Bach’s wonderful music.
Each movement of the Magnificat itself produces a very different response, from large-scale crowd scenes to intimate duets and solos. I like the playful interactions of the male duet with various props in the Quia fecit and the love duet with the Et misericordia, though the joyous bustle of Fecit potentiam is undermined by very static stage action. There is a pleasingly angular quality to Deposuit potentes and the final chorus has lots of circular movement to reinforce the tone of both words and music.
Musically, things are very strong indeed, led as they are by Marc Minkowski in the pit. The sounds he gets from La Scintilla are bouncy, rhythmic and lithe, as befits the context of the performance. The chorus of the Zurich Opera also sound very good, though the solo singers are not credited. This disc is well worth a look, not just for dance enthusiasts but also for Bach fans who fancy something a little different.
Simon Thompson