28 April 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss—DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU (F. Hawlata, J. Bauer, B. Berchtold, G. Yang; cpo 777 757-2)

Richard Strauss: DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU [cpo 777 757-2]

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Die schweigsame Frau—F. Hawlata (Sir Morosus), J. Bauer (Aminta), B. Berchtold (Henry Morosus), G. Yang (Isotta), T. Penttinen (Carlotta), M. Winter (Carlo Morbio), M. Straube (Theodosia Zimmerlein), K. Räsänen (Cesare Vanuzzi), M. Gäbler (Giuseppe Farfallo); Chor der Oper Chemnitz, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie; Frank Beermann [Recorded in conjunction with performances by Oper Chemnitz, Opernhaus (Die Theater Chemnitz), Chemnitz, Germany, 7 – 12 May 2012; cpo 777 757-2]

Like their human counterparts, many musical families have their black sheep, siblings and cousins who make cursory appearances at family reunions—or, in musical clans, festivals—but otherwise remain out of sight, safely beyond the scrutiny of unfamiliar eyes.  If there is an overlooked offspring among the operas of Richard Strauss, it is his ‘silent woman,’ Die schweigsame Frau.  With the operas of Strauss in general holding such prominent places in the repertories of the world’s opera houses, not to mention in the affections of opera lovers, questions inevitably arise about the quality of Die schweigsame Frau: why is this ‘silent woman’ a lesser sister, less worthy to trod the boards and dwell in hearts than Arabella, Ariadne, and the Marschallin; or even Elektra and Salome?  What is she that her plight so little engages those whose sensibilities embrace Der Rosenkavalier and the notoriously challenging Die Frau ohne Schatten?

If it is true that necessity is the mother of all invention, it might be said that Die schweigsame Frau has a Jewish mother: the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929 necessitated a search for new librettists for Strauss’s future projects, and the composer’s choice for the project that would become Die schweigsame Frau—premiered at Dresden’s Semperoper in 1935, allegedly with the personal approval of Adolf Hitler—was Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-born Jewish writer who was at the time of his initial collaboration with Strauss at the height of his literary abilities and fame.  The extent of Strauss’s personal identification with the Nazi party is difficult to ascertain, but his selection as President of Joseph Goebbels’s Reichsmusikkammer reflects the high esteem in which he was held by Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi cultural establishment.  Strauss’s choice of Zweig as librettist for Die schweigsame Frau inevitably led to a row with Nazi authorities: though, as noted, Hitler himself authorized the premiere of the opera to go ahead as planned, Goebbels’s patronage was withdrawn, resulting in the Gestapo intervening to suppress the opera after only two or three performances [sources vary on this point, and most reliable primary-source evidence was likely lost to World War II] and in Strauss’s eventual resignation from his Reichsmusikkammer Presidency.  The first performance of the opera was conducted by Strauss’s friend and champion Karl Böhm, and the lead rôles of Sir Morosus and Aminta were sung by Friedrich Plaschke and Maria Cebotari.  Documentation of critical and audience reception of the premiere is scant, discussion of the opera in the contemporary press presumably also prevented by the Gestapo, and nearly a quarter-century would pass before productions of Die schweigsame Frau at the New York City Opera (where the performances were sung in English translation) and the Salzburger Festspiele renewed interest in the opera.  Despite the participation of many expert Straussians and excellent singers in productions of the opera, Die schweigsame Frau remains a ‘black sheep’ in the Strauss family, still never having been heard at the Metropolitan Opera.

Though its power to win audiences’ plaudits and convince impresarios of the stage-worthiness of Die schweigsame Frau may be understandably limited, the effect of this new recording from cpo in exposing listeners to the high quality of Strauss’s score should prove profound.  Whereas the discography is brimming with recordings of Elektra, Salome, and Der Rosenkavalier, only a handful of recordings of Die schweigsame Frau exist, all but two of them ‘live’ or pirated affairs in variable sound.  In their series of recordings from Opernhaus Chemnitz, cpo have shown a dedication to the music of Richard Strauss, their previous recording of Die Liebe der Danae having likewise entered a recorded field that was far from crowded.  Since inception, a notable hallmark of cpo recordings has been sonic excellence, and even when recording under circumstances of live, staged performances, cpo’s engineers reliably provide superb balances.  [The present recording was made in conjunction with staged performances but was recorded in the opera house under studio conditions.  It is also an ‘abridged’ performance in the sense that it employs the Dresden version of the score prepared—cut, that is—for the Semperoper premiere, with the choral scene—‘Ist es möglich’—restored in Act II.]  This is emphatically true of this recording of Der schweigsame Frau, a score that benefits greatly from sufficient sonic space in which both orchestra and voices can expand without threatening shrillness or overloading.  Like most of Strauss’s operas, Der schweigsame Frau provides challenges to engineers with its extremes of pitches, Sir Morosus descending to the lowest depths of the bass range and Aminta soaring into the coloratura stratosphere.  cpo’s microphones capture every tone cleanly and accurately, maintaining brightness on high and rotundity on low, as well as producing a careful but natural balance between orchestra pit and stage.  The cleverness and humor of Strauss’s orchestration is abundantly apparent, highlighted by a spirited account of the score by the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie.  Choral contributions by the Oper Chemnitz Chorus are similarly animated and unfailingly enjoyable.  The performance is conducted with no little wit by Oper Chemnitz’s General Music Director, Frank Beermann.

The plot of Die schweigsame Frau was taken from Ben Jonson’s play Epicœne, or the Silent Woman, a comedy of errors concerning the romantic aspirations of an aging man with an aversion to noise but plenty of cash and the ambitions of a shrewish young woman—actually a young man—incapable of any volume softer than forte.  Though unsuccessful at its premiere in 1609, Jonson’s play was ripe for operatic treatment: in addition to serving as the basis for Zweig’s libretto for Die schweigsame Frau, sans the gender-bending subplot, the basic framework of the play shaped the libretti of Salieri’s Angiolina, Pavesi’s Ser Marcantonio (recorded by NAXOS at the 2011 Rossini in Wildbad Festival and scheduled for release on CD this month), and—most notably—Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.  Strauss and Zweig described Die schweigsame Frau as a ‘Komische Oper’ (more in the sense of French opéra comique with spoken dialogue than in the Italian tradition of opera buffa), but as in Don Pasquale and, in the Strauss canon, Der Rosenkavalier, there are numerous moments of serious, dangerous emotion.  In Zweig’s libretto, Aminta—the ‘silent’ woman of the title—is a not-quite-willing participant in the mock marriage plotted by her actual husband, Henry, to trick his obstinate—and, seemingly, opera-loathing—uncle, Sir Morosus.  Musically, Die schweigsame Frau does not find its composer at the absolute zenith of his abilities, but there are many pages of the score that are vintage Strauss, offering a talented cast numerous opportunities for pointed singing and characterization.

As in many of his operas, Strauss populated Die schweigsame Frau with an array of secondary characters that require first-rate voices.  When Henry, Sir Morosus’s nephew, returns to London to visit his uncle, he arrives with a troupe of Italian opera singers and even a full chorus in tow.  Isotta, the troupe’s seconda donna, is sung by soprano Guibee Yang, who sails through her high-flying music with charm and brightly forward tone, especially in her irony-laden description of the particular qualities that she might offer as Morosus’s wife, ‘Ich würde lachen.’  Carlotta, sung by mezzo-soprano Tiina Penttinen, also offers an explication of her potential marital ‘duties’ in ‘Ich würde singen,’ which Ms. Penttinen sings with saucy good humor.  Baritone Matthias Winter portrays Carlo Morbio winningly, singing strongly and audibly relishing his comedic opportunities when impersonating the Notary.  Basses Kouta Räsänen and Martin Gäbler as Cesare Vanuzzi and Giuseppe Farfallo also create delightful vignettes, rolling sonorously through their ‘disguised’ assignments as the Priest and a Sailor.  Also contributing engagingly to the fun in Act I as the chorus of Henry’s merry band of singers are tenors Gyung-Ha Choi, Mu-Gon Kim, and Harald Meyer and basses Jann Schröder, Petar Spiridonov, and Lukasz Wieloch.  No opera of substance set in 18th-Century Britain would be complete without pastiche music for harpsichord (adapted by Strauss from pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), and the thoroughly capable maestro di cembalo in this performance is Jeffrey Goldberg.

Theodosia Zimmerlein, Sir Morosus’s ‘Haushälterin’ or housekeeper, is a strange composite of Berta in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and the Amme in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Like Berta, Sir Morosus’s housekeeper has designs on becoming mistress of her master’s house and is not above engaging in a bit of scheming in pursuit of her goals.  Fräulein Zimmerlein’s efforts at orchestrating the goings-on in her employer’s household have more than a kernel of self-preservation at their heart, however, and in this respect she proves a distant cousin of the enigmatic Amme.  Sung in this performance by alto Monika Straube, Fräulein Haushälterin bustles through the opera with slyness and barely-contained frustration, conveyed fantastically by Ms. Straube.  Strauss makes cruel demands of the singers of his alto rôles, subjecting them to tessitura that ranges from contralto depths to dramatic soprano heights.  Few singers could be completely comfortable under such musical conditions, but Ms. Straube sings excellently, maintaining an evenness of tone even at the extremes of her range.  Taking cues from the text, which she delivers with superb diction, Ms. Straube leaves no dramatic stone unturned and is a genuine presence in every scene in which she sings.

If the Housekeeper is Strauss’s Berta, Pankrazius Schneidebart—the surname translates as Cutbeard, the name of the barber in Jonson’s play—is his Figaro.  Schneidebart’s closest musical relative is perhaps the Music Master in Ariadne auf Naxos, whose deteriorating command of his situation resembles the way in which Schneidebart’s masterminding of the plotting in Die schweigsame Frau threatens to careen out of control.  Musically, Schneidebart is a vintage Strauss baritone rôle, and the security and sheer enjoyment with which Andreas Kindschuh sings the part is heartening.  Like Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Schneidebart is a practiced master of playing to all sides of a conundrum, in turns cajoling Sir Morosus, comforting and abetting Henry, enacting his part in the sham marriage, and all the while pursuing his own agenda.  The charming little canzona in which Schneidebart encourages Sir Morosus—a man of a certain age—to seek an ideally ‘silent’ young bride, ‘Mädchen nur, die nichts erfahren,’ receives from Mr. Kindschuh a performance of mock formality and wickedly funny irony.  Throughout the opera, Schneidebart proves a most resourceful factotum, and Mr. Kindschuh proves a thoroughly entertaining Schneidebart.

Hearing the tessitura that poor Henry faces in Die schweigsame Frau reminds the listener of the oft-repeated accusation that Strauss was an unrelenting enemy of the tenor voice.  It would be a fairer charge to state merely that Strauss preferred for his tenors—whether on the heroic form of the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Menelaus in Die ägyptische Helena or in the lyric vein of Narraboth in Salome and Flamand in Capriccio—to dwell in the upper octaves of their registers.  Henry is more extensive than many of Strauss’s tenor rôles, a true test of the stamina of the singer.  Tenor Bernhard Berchtold, a singer whose Chemnitz repertory includes rôles as diverse as Lord Artur in Nicolai’s Die Heimkehr des Verbannten and Vasco da Gama in the original version of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, copes manfully with the punishing tessitura of Henry’s music, with all but the highest notes ringing out impressively.  Slight strain and shortness of pitch at the extreme top of Mr. Berchtold’s range do not detract from his very fine performance, which is shaped by an intelligent use of the text.  The tenderness with which Mr. Berchtold sings in Henry’s private exchanges with Aminta is very touching, and he is unfailingly believable as the devoted but exasperated nephew.  Henry’s music lacks the melodic distinction of the poetic outpourings of Flamand and the aria for the Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier but matches both of these rôles in the ardor of his utterances.  Mr. Berchtold perfectly captures this ardor in his heated singing, which ultimately encompasses both the passion and the pathos of Henry’s circumstances.

Aminta inhabits a musical environment strewn with rippling coloratura and frequent excursions above top C, closely resembling the musical profile of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.  When sung with warmth, emotional depth, and attention to the twists and turns of her involvement with Henry’s plan to regain his uncle’s favor, Aminta can unexpectedly prove to be one of Strauss’s most moving heroines.  Not unlike Norina’s immediate flood of regret when she slaps Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s opera, Strauss’s Aminta is a reluctant actress in her husband’s domestic drama from the start.  Sir Morosus’s grumpy sincerity awakens pity in Aminta even before she has begun to play her part, and when she finally erupts as the noisy harpy she has been engaged to portray, she does so only after having repeatedly complained to Henry of the injustice of their scheme and fortified her own resolve.  Of course, compassion is at the heart of all of Strauss’s most effective heroines: the Marschallin’s relinquishment of Octavian when she observes the burgeoning love between him and Sophie, the flighty Zerbinetta’s genuine pity for Ariadne’s sorrow, Arabella’s understanding of the boorish Mandryka, Maria’s unyielding love for her recalcitrant husband in Friedenstag.  Set amid such frothy surroundings, it is surprising that Aminta reaches such heights of emotional eloquence, but the performance on this recording by Julia Bauer aspires to profundity even in the broadest comedy.  Seemingly untroubled by the extensive range of her part, tossing off brilliant high notes with ease, Ms. Bauer sings with the unwavering grace of an expert Straussian.  Her joy when singing in duet with Henry is palpable, and the regret that she displays in her vituperous dealings with Sir Morosus reaches the heart.  That Ms. Bauer achieves so much dramatically is remarkable, considering that she also offers a near-flawless performance of a formidably difficult part.  Ms. Bauer also never allows the listener to forget that Aminta is an Italian opera singer, and opportunities for vocal display are seized with abandon and unfailingly exhilarating results.  Such musically and dramatically complete performances of Strauss rôles are sadly rare, so Ms. Bauer’s performance is a special gift to lovers of Strauss’s operas.

The rôle of Sir Morosus, about whom the complicated drama of Die schweigsame Frau revolves, is entrusted to the cast’s one internationally-recognized singer, bass Franz Hawlata.  A practiced Straussian, Mr. Hawlata débuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995 as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, a part in which he is also featured in the DECCA CD and DVD recordings of the acclaimed Baden-Baden production conducted by Christian Thielemann and preserving Renée Fleming’s poised Marschallin.  Mr. Hawlata also sang Morosus in a celebrated 2010 production of Die schweigsame Frau at the Bayerischen Staatsoper, opposite the Aminta of Diana Damrau and Henry of Toby Spence.  Mr. Hawlata possesses a voice of near-ideal proportions for Sir Morosus’s music, and the mastery of the rôle that he displays in this recording is wonderful.  Though he is a retired admiral of the Royal Navy—conjuring stiff upper lips and the like—and a professed curmudgeon with an intolerance for noise owing to an explosion on his flagship, Sir Morosus’s musical personality does not preclude the exercising of an understated sense of humor, and Mr. Hawlata’s singing conveys an air of fun even in Sir Morosus’s most grumbling growls in his lower register.  Few basses singing today project their lowest notes with the impressive strength displayed by Mr. Hawlata, and his trueness of pitch even when singing low Cs and Ds is admirable.  Like Aminta, Sir Morosus can be an intriguingly multi-layered character when performed with sensitivity and dignity, and Mr. Hawlata’s performance explores many layers of the rôle’s contradictions: every inch the retired man of the sea, reliant upon no one for anything, he is nonetheless deeply attached to his nephew and, before her pre-marital silence comes to its inevitable end, his false bride.  Sung with unstinting wit and vocal panache, Mr. Hawlata’s Sir Morosus is a flawed but charming man one cannot help liking.

The extent to which Strauss’s music and Zweig’s libretto overcame the difficult circumstances of the genesis and first performances of Die schweigsame Frau is arguable, and the relative neglect of the opera in comparison with the worldwide success of its brethren in the Strauss canon suggests that it is a work of secondary importance at best.  Strauss himself once stated with typical irony that he understood himself to be a ‘second-rate composer’ but a decidedly first-rate one.  To a significant degree, the fairness of applying this assessment to Die schweigsame Frau depends upon the performance at hand.  Musically, the score is not the equal of its composer’s great masterpieces, but it is a Strauss score nonetheless, and Strauss at his least inspired was a superb craftsman with exceptional gifts for potent characterization and theatrical acumen.  With a team of singers with voices capable of meeting Strauss’s strenuous demands and personalities able to mine stereotypical characters for gems of emotional honesty, Die schweigsame Frau can prove an enriching experience.  Oper Chemnitz is not the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, or the Wiener Staatsoper, and that is part of the undeniable felicity of this recording: that an opera company just outside of the international circuit could draw from its roster of ‘house’ singers an ensemble of such dedication, cooperation, and accomplishment is incredibly encouraging.  The singing in this performance is not invariably first-rate, but it rivals the best that could be heard today in any of the world’s opera houses, large or small, and—most significantly—it also achieves the enviable distinction of making Die schweigsame Frau a riotously enjoyable din from first noise to last.

19 April 2013

CD REVIEW: G. A. Homilius—MARKUSPASSION (H. J. Mammel, T. Laske, M. Mauch, R. Sandhoff; Carus 83.260)

G. A. Homilius: MARKUSPASSION [Carus 83.260]

GOTTFRIED AUGUST HOMILIUS (1714 – 1785): Markuspassion, HoWV I.10—H. J. Mammel (Evangelist, tenor), T. Laske (Christ, bass), M. Mauch (soprano), R. Sandhoff (alto); Basler Madrigalisten, L’arpa festante; Fritz Näf [Recorded in the Reformete Kirche Arlesheim, Germany, 26 – 29 March 2012; Carus 83.260, world premiere recording]

Virtually every music lover has experienced a few moments of indecision when, hearing a piece of music, there are feelings of both familiarity and ignorance; that sense of musical déjà vu inspired by an instinct for recognizing a specific piece or its style and an inability to precisely identify the score or its composer.  The music of Gottfried August Homilius, a crossroads at which styles past and future intersect, might well account for some of these moments of musical confusion.  Indeed, there are moments in his Markuspassion when Homilius—an almost exact contemporary of Gluck—has one foot firmly in the Baroque traditions of Bach and Händel and the other stretching into the mature Classicism of Haydn and Mozart.  Markuspassion is far more than a curiosity or stylistic hybrid, however: in a score of roughly the same duration as Bach’s Johannes-Passion, Homilius makes his own unique compositional voice apparent.

A native Saxon like both Bach and Händel, Homilius may have been a pupil of the former at Leipzig: it is known that the younger composer moved in circles populated by Bach’s students, but evidence supporting the suggestion that Homilius personally studied with Bach is largely anecdotal, based upon the recollections of the composer Johann Adam Hiller, who became Cantor of Thomaskirche in 1789, nearly forty years after Bach’s death.  Active for virtually his entire professional life as first an organist and later Cantor in Dresden, Homilius enjoyed access to a rich Lutheran liturgical tradition that drew upon the work of Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Telemann, and Bach, as well as proximity to one of the most musically progressive Courts in 18th-Century Europe.  In fact, the Markuspassion was dedicated by Homilius to Princess Anna Amalia, the influential sister of the music-loving Frederick the Great, perhaps in recognition of her patronage of an early performance of the work.  Historical details of personal, professional, and educational associations notwithstanding, Homilius’s skill and integrity as a composer are obvious in Markuspassion.

The Stuttgart-based Carus label has devoted a number of releases in its ‘Music from Dresden’ line to music by Homilius, and this confidence in the quality of the music of a composer little known to many listeners is opulently rewarded in this recording of Markuspassion.  Twenty voices strong for this performance, the choristers—and occasional soloists—of Basler Madrigalisten impress in every choral episode.  Blending beautifully in the chorales, they also prove thrilling in their full-throated singing of the turba-like choruses that are so reminiscent of the Passions of Bach.  The opening chorale, ‘So gehst du nun, mein Jesu,’ is cut from the same fabric as the opening movements of both Bach’s Johannes-Passion and his Matthäus-Passion, and the choristers sing it with appropriate anguish but beautiful tone.  Equally impressive are instances in which tenors from the choir combine in a smaller ensemble to portray Christ’s Apostles, a lovely effect.  The choristers and soloists receive expert support from the twenty-seven players of L’arpa festante.  As in Bach’s Passions, Homilius’s music requires several of the instrumentalists to contribute solo obbligati, all of which are played with finesse and attention to detail derived from the relevant texts.  Fritz Näf, founder of Basler Madrigalisten, conducts sensitively, taking cues on tempi from the dramatic situations.  Perhaps most importantly, Maestro Näf gives the performance space in which to develop naturally, allowing Homilius’s music to work its magic without conductorial interference or forced climaxes.

Soprano Monika Mauch brings a bright, slightly metallic voice to Homilius’s strenuous music for the soprano soloist.  The soprano’s first aria, ‘Mensch, empfinde doch Erbarmen,’ belongs to the world of Bach’s Passions, its hint of the future coming with an unexpected cadenza, an opportunity to display her upper register of which Ms. Mauch takes full advantage.  One of the most compelling sequences in Markuspassion is the series of alternating Accompagnati and arias for the soprano in the Second Part, a reaction to the actual Crucifixion that takes on the intense character of the title character’s famous mad scene in Händel’s Orlando.  Ms. Mauch brings both precision and power to this sequence, ideally conveying the heartbreak of the text through her pointed singing.  Ms. Mauch sings her final aria, ‘Ihr Tränen fließt,’ a paean to Christ’s death and expected salvation in the vein of Händel’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ with appealingly pure tone, the words carried convincingly on the breath.

The first aria for the alto soloist, ‘Wenn euch eure Sünden drücken,’ with its lilting horns, would not seem out of place in a score by Haydn, Salieri, or the young Mozart, and alto Ruth Sandhoff sings it with assured technique that makes easy going of the divisions.  The alto’s second aria, ‘Verkennt ihn nicht, den Gott der Götter,’ conjures memories of Händel’s Rodelinda with its musical depictions of exasperation and righteous definace, and Ms. Sandhoff meets the demands of the music excitingly.  Throughout her performance, Ms. Sandhoff deploys her compact voice with strength and intelligence.

Tenor Hans Jörg Mammel sings the Evangelist and the tenor arias, placing the voice ideally for the varying requirements of his music.  Singing the text of the Gospel, Mr. Mammel communicates with the listener through deeply expressive singing, shaping lines with liquid phrasing and a wide palette of vocal colors.  Mr. Mammel sounds untroubled by the punishing tessitura of the Evangelist’s music, projecting ably at both extremities of his range.  An accomplished veteran of historically-informed performances, Mr. Mammel is gifted with a seemingly unerring instinct for pacing his singing according to the demands of both music and text.  In the two arias for the tenor soloist, Mr. Mammel sings with imperturbable technique and refinement.

As in Bach’s Passions, the casting of the role of Christ is crucial to the success of Homilius’s Markuspassion.  Baritone Thomas Laske proves a worthy interpreter and a very talented singer, singing straightforwardly but with great dedication.  Homilius’s score includes a very eloquent setting of Christ’s inaugural celebration of the Eucharist, expressed through poignant arioso: Mr. Laske, firm of voice in every bar he sings, delivers this scene with quiet dignity.  Mr. Laske never artificially darkens or inflates his tone, with the result that his Christ is audibly a young man fulfilling fateful prophecies in the prime of his life.  As soloist, Mr. Laske movingly sings two of the most beautiful arias in the score.

It cannot be argued that Homilius’s Markuspassion is as significant a work as Bach’s Johannes-Passion or Matthäus-Passion, but it is a work of fervor, emotional honesty, and legitimate originality that deserves to be studied, performed, and enjoyed.  Despite possessing impeccable musical credentials, Gottfried August Homilius has the misfortune of being a member of the largely forgotten generation of composers whose careers coincided with the transition from the Late Baroque of Bach, Händel, and Vivaldi to the Viennese Classicism of Haydn and Mozart.  Homilius’s Markuspassion is an important work of that transitional period, its structure honoring Baroque traditions and its music often anticipating later works.  Having engaged a first-rate cast of soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists under the direction of a conductor whose affection for the music extends to trusting its impact, Carus have produced an account of Homilius’s Markuspassion that resoundingly validates the esteem in which the score and its composer were held in 18th-Century Dresden.

18 April 2013

CD REVIEW: C. Franck & R. Strauss—VIOLIN SONATAS (A. Dumay, L. Lortie; Onyx Classics ONYX 4096)

César Franck & Richard Strauss: VIOLIN SONATAS [Onyx Classics ONYX 4096]

CÉSAR FRANCK (1822 – 1980): Violin Sonata in A Major; Mélancolie; Prélude, fugue et variation in B minor, Op. 18 (arranged by A. Dumay and L. Lortie, after Paul Lemaitre) and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18; ‘Auf stillem Waldespfad’ (arranged by Jascha Heifetz)—A. Dumay, violin; L. Lortie, piano [Recorded in Saint-Denis-le-Ferment, Normandy, France, 24 – 26 September 2012; Onyx Classics ONYX 4096]

The names Eugène Ysaÿe and Arthur Grumiaux are as storied in the annals of violin-playing as Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior are in those of Wagner singing.  Pillars of the Franco-Belgian school, these artists elevated the standards of playing attributed to French-speaking violinists to equal and even surpass those of Italian, Slavic, and Teutonic violinists.  Since the early death of Grumiaux in 1986, perceptible elements of the Franco-Belgian school of playing have eroded along with those of other ‘national’ schools.  While it can be argued that overall standards of playing have gradually increased since the turn of the 20th Century, with young players generally displaying more consistently accomplished techniques than all but their most gifted forbears, it cannot be denied that the unique qualities that audibly identified violinists of different nationalistic and ethnic origins have all but disappeared.  A sameness of approach similar to that of which opera lovers complain also affects instrumentalists, so the rare instance in which an artist’s playing exhibits the hallmarks of any of the lamented ‘national’ styles of performance is noteworthy and, especially to younger listeners, often revelatory.  The playing of Augustin Dumay on this recording is extraordinary not merely for its homage to the ancestry of Ysaÿe and Grumiaux but also, most importantly, for its eloquence, beauty, and formidably sure intonation.

Interestingly, the recording of chamber music seems to pose challenges to engineers and producers nearly as great as those of recording larger-scaled works.  Placing a large orchestra or gaggle of voices within a viable soundscape is an obviously daunting task, but the evidence of more than a century of recordings of chamber music suggests that balancing the sounds made by a small group of musicians is equally demanding.  César Franck, Richard Strauss, Augustin Dumay, and Louis Lortie are all done a great service by the work of the team assembled by Onyx Classics for this recording.  The sonic results achieved by Executive Producer Matthew Cosgrove, Producer and Balance Engineer Chris Alder, and Editing and Mastering Technician Michel Pierre are superb.  Perhaps there are those audiophiles who might object to the closely-detailed sound on this disc, which places both violinist and pianist in a warm, reverberant acoustic that allows uncommon fidelity to pitch and rhythm without sounding coldly analytical.  The atmosphere of the recording studio can rob a performance of vitality, and one of the most delightful aspects of the sonic quality of this disc is the audible sense of an actual performance by genuine musical artists taking place before the microphones.  Hearing the breathing of the performers heightens this sense of occasion without in any way distracting from the music-making and even highlights the breadth of both musicians’ phrasing.

The vigor and expansiveness of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, composed in 1886 as a wedding gift for Eugène Ysaÿe, belie it being the work of a composer in his sixties and well into the last decade of his life.  Combining the formality typical of Franck’s mature work with unusual passion and staggering demands for virtuosity from both violinist and pianist, the Violin Sonata is among Franck’s most memorable works and one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano in the repertory.  Very accomplished musicians sometimes fall victim to the difficulties of Franck’s writing, but no niceties of technique elude Mr. Dumay or Mr. Lortie.  Mr. Lortie faces a far more demanding task in Franck’s Sonata than in many similar works, and the aplomb with which he plays all four movements is a testament to his artistry.  The artistic integrity of both players is beyond reproach, in fact: Mr. Dumay’s tone has much of the singing quality remembered from the playing of Grumiaux, and Mr. Lortie’s playing has the intensely communicative sensibility of a great Lieder accompanist.  It is refreshing to hear a performance of chamber music as symphonically-conceived as Franck’s Violin Sonata played with such unwavering attention to its inherent tunefulness: the art of song pervades this performance as compellingly as the technical prowess of the players.  Particularly in the Allegretto ben moderato opening movement, Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie engage in a wonderfully elegant ‘conversation,’ which is convincingly extended throughout the Sonata.  Whereas many players are content merely to survive a performance of the Franck Sonata, Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie approach the music with both appropriate hubris and humor, informed but not inhibited by tradition.

The B-minor Prelude, Fugue and Variations—originally written for organ, on which instrument the composer was a noted virtuoso, and performed here in an arrangement by Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie—is a work that nods to Franck’s academic predilections with its reflections of Bach.  Mélancolie, another work composed late in Franck’s life, is a beautiful miniature, its emotional provenance more one of weariness than genuine sadness.  Both pieces receive from Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie performances of dash and distinction.  On a similar path, in name and in practice, is the Strauss miniature ‘Auf stillem Waldespfad,’ played in an arrangement by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

Heifetz was an early champion of the Opus 18 Violin Sonata in E-flat of Richard Strauss, composed in 1887 when Strauss was in his early twenties.  Written by a composer at the opposite end of his career, Strauss’s Violin Sonata is ironically almost exactly contemporaneous with Franck’s Sonata: both are emphatically works of the 19th Century, Franck’s a summation of the Sonata form as developed and enriched by his contemporaries and Strauss’s a transition from the tonal world of Beethoven and Brahms to that of the 20th Century.  Though Strauss largely abandoned chamber music after youthful efforts, it is significant that several of his operas—most notably Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio, and Intermezzo—employ chamber-music-like passages in moments of greatest emotional depth.  Despite being an early work, the Violin Sonata inhabits the extroverted but quietly wistful tonal world of mature Strauss, the writing for both instruments displaying versatility and reminding that listener that the young Strauss was accomplished as both a violinist and a pianist.  Though recorded by many fine musicians, Strauss’s Violin Sonata is not as well known as it deserves to be, and the performance by Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie on this disc proves that the piece merits inclusion in the repertoire of every sonata duo capable of playing it.  Though Strauss’s music is unmistakably Teutonic in mood, the Francophone light and shade of Mr. Dumay’s and Mr. Lortie’s playing reveals unexpected moments of levity even in the most athletic passages.  This performance embraces the sentimentality that permeates the Sonata, expressing without exaggeration the myriad emotions inherent in the score.  As in their playing of the Franck Sonata, Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie successfully meet every technical demand of Strauss’s music, ripping through the opening movement with panache and tackling the complex second movement unflinchingly.  Playing with power that would be welcome in Elektra and grace reminiscent of Arabella, Mr. Dumay and Mr. Lortie prove tremendously adept Straussians.

With their vastly disparate styles, it might be assumed that the Violin Sonatas of César Franck and Richard Strauss would prove ill-matched companions.  A common aphorism suggests that music is an universal language, however, and the playing of Augustin Dumay and Louis Lortie on this disc exemplifies the power of exceptional performers to apply individual styles to plumb the complementary qualities of great pieces of music.  Both of the Sonatas on this disc receive performances of power and nuance, violinist and pianist introducing 21st-Century listeners to the best elements of the Franco-Belgian school of playing that in recent years have been dormant and feared extinct.  Resurrecting exalted traditions is an achievement of only the finest musicians.  Augustin Dumay and Louis Lortie accomplish this and go even further with this fantastic recording: they launch their own unique tradition of uncompromising excellence.

15 April 2013

IN MEMORIAM: British conductor Sir Colin Davis, 1927 – 2013

Sir Colin Davis (1927 - 2013)

Sir Colin Davis

25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013

Acclaimed British conductor Sir Colin Davis has died at the age of eighty-five.  A commanding presence on the British music scene throughout a long career, Maestro Davis was legendary for his leadership of the London Symphony Orchestra, with much of his repertory with the Orchestra documented on award-winning recordings.  This legacy was further enriched by the founding of the LSO Live record label, under whose auspices a recording of Maestro Davis’s April 2012 Barbican concert performances of Weber’s Der Freischütz with Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews, and Simon O’Neill is due for release later this month.

Born in Surrey, the young Davis was educated at Christ’s Hospital and the Royal College of Music, where he initially studied clarinet.  As musical influences on his youthful endeavors, Davis cited Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Bruno Walter.  Among his earliest engagements as a conductor of opera was a production of Don Giovanni for the newly-formed Chelsea Opera Group.  It was a performance of L’Enfance du Christ at the Bryanston Summer School that awakened Davis’s lifelong affection for the music of Hector Berlioz.

Don Giovanni again proved the vessel on which Maestro Davis’s career advanced when he substituted for the famous Mozartean Otto Klemperer at a 1959 performance at Royal Festival Hall.  This paved the way for an invitation from Sir Thomas Beecham to participate in a Glyndebourne production of Die Zauberflöte.  The music of Mozart would continue to be central to Maestro Davis’s career, in the world’s opera houses, concert halls, and recording studios.  Maestro Davis’s recordings of Mozart’s operas proved some of the most successful installments in the Philips Complete Mozart Edition, with some of the recordings offering unexpected delights of casting: Monsterrat Caballé and Dame Janet Baker as the scheming sisters in Così fan tutte, Martina Arroyo as a steely but exquisitely feminine Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, the deliciously full-throated but lyrical Contessa of Jessye Norman in Le Nozze di Figaro, the scorching Elettra of Roberta Alexander in Idomeneo.  Maestro Davis’s earlier, 1968 studio recording of Idomeneo remains an important pioneering effort at restoring the opera to the scale envisioned by its 25-year-old composer and an uncommonly rewarding musical performance, its cast—the young George Shirley in the name part, the woefully neglected Margherita Rinaldi as Ilia, and the barnstorming Pauline Tinsley as Elettra—setting standards of both musical excellence and dramatic verisimilitude, inspired to their achievements by Maestro Davis’s winning leadership.  Mozart’s Symphonies likewise enjoyed the precision and buoyancy of Maestro Davis’s baton, along with the instrumental and choral music of Franz Joseph Haydn, and those who love Händel’s most popular oratorio cherish Davis’s Philips recording of Messiah with the never-surpassed quartet of Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield, and John Shirley-Quirk, a ‘traditional’ reading of the score that nonetheless hints at the historically-informed performance practice movement that was simmering in British musical institutions.

Music by composers of his native Britain also loomed large in Maestro Davis’s career.  His inspired conducting was crucial to the success of Covent Garden’s 1968 revival of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, an opera viewed since its premiere in 1955 as a complicated, difficult piece: so compelling was the revival that a studio recording was undertaken, also conducted by Maestro Davis, and this proved to be one of the classics of British opera on records.  This was followed in 1970 by Maestro Davis presiding over the premiere of Tippett’s The Knot Garden, a rewarding if controversial experience for both composer and conductor that contributed to Tippett’s decision to dedicate his fourth opera, The Ice Break, to Davis.  Success in standard Italian and German repertories—the ‘meat and potatoes’ fare of Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Strauss in the opera house and Beethoven and Brahms in the concert hall—largely eluded Maestro Davis, whose abundant musical good sense led him, after notable early failures, to cede these sectors of the repertoire to other conductors.  Free to concentrate on the music of composers like Sir Edward Elgar, Sir William Walton, and especially Jean Sibelius, Maestro Davis likewise expanded the musical horizons of the British public by championing the operas of Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and Alexander Zemlinsky, as well as conducting the British premieres of Kurt Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella Cattedrale.  The operas of Benjamin Britten also inspired Maestro Davis, with performances and recordings that complemented and in some cases challenged the famed productions and records conducted and supervised by the composer.  It was with Britten’s Peter Grimes that Maestro Davis made his Metropolitan Opera début in 1967, pacing a production by Tyrone Guthrie that featured Jon Vickers as a polarizing Grimes, Lucine Amara as Ellen Orford, Sir Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Jean Madeira as Mrs. Sedley, and Lili Chookasian as Auntie.  Critics were divided on the overall musical integrity of the production, but opinion was virtually unanimous that Maestro Davis had, as Irving Kolodin put it in Saturday Review, ‘a superb success.’

It would be folly to suggest that any one work or group of works encapsulates the legacy of a conductor as versatile as Sir Colin Davis, but it cannot be denied that one of his most lasting contributions to music both in Britain and internationally is his espousal of the music of Hector Berlioz.  Transformed from a reputation for ungainliness to global palatability by Maestro Davis’s dedication to presenting performances and recordings memorable for their meticulous preparation, consistent musical integrity, and employment of the finest artists available, Berlioz as a composer with a goal of having his music remembered, enjoyed, and analyzed by subsequent generations of music lovers owes more to Maestro Davis than to any other musician.  Though Les Troyens was first performed at Covent Garden in 1957 under Rafael Kubelík’s baton, it was not until Maestro Davis conducted the Bärenreiter critical edition of the score at the Royal Opera House—and in the recording studio for Philips—in 1969 that the opera started to gain a foothold in the international repertory.  Maestro Davis’s sensitivity to Berlioz’s unique vocal demands, orchestrations, and dramatic situations revealed that Les Troyens is indeed a musical behemoth but a tremendously rewarding one, one that requires commitments of stamina and devotion from both performers and audiences and repays these commitments richly.  The prickly, often peculiar sonorities of Berlioz’s music conjure a world in which Maestro Davis was entirely at home, and his command of the individual idioms of Berlioz—perplexing to those conductors who excel in the ‘meat and potatoes’ repertory—was complete throughout his career.  Perhaps only in the case of Sir Charles Mackerras and the music of Janáček has the name of a single conductor been so inextricably joined with the music of a particular composer as is true of Sir Colin Davis and Berlioz.  It is interesting to note that, beyond their respective specialties, both Mackerras and Davis were likewise masters of Mozart repertory.  Perhaps the clear-headedness demanded of an important Mozart conductor opened Maestro Davis’s mind to the magnificent muddles of Berlioz.

Sir Colin Davis was for more than fifty years a galvanizing presence in music, especially in Britain.  He was an old-fashioned Kapellmeister in the best sense of that term, a champion of ‘new’ and modern repertory whose conducting technique was founded on deep understanding and appreciation of Viennese Classicism, from which even the spikiest 20th Century music evolved.  A pioneer who was nonetheless outspoken in his preference for operatic productions that displayed absolute respect for the librettists’ intentions, even his contradictions were supremely musical.  Maestro Davis was at his core a ‘star’ conductor whose genius shone not from the podium but from the whole orchestra pit, from the depths of the stage, and from the grooves of records that convey but do not contain his infectious love of music.

Sir Colin Davis at the time of his Metropolitan Opera début in Peter Grimes, 1967 [Photo by the MET]

CD REVIEW: J.S. Bach—JOHANNES-PASSION (Mulroy, Brook, Lunn, Wilkinson; Dunedin Consort; Linn CKD 419]

Johann Sebastian Bach: JOHANNES-PASSION [Linn CKD 419]

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245—N. Mulroy (Evangelist, tenor arias), M. Brook (Christ, bass arias), J. Lunn (Ancilla, soprano arias), C. Wilkinson (alto), R. Davies (Petrus, Pilatus), S. Chambers (Servus); University of Glasgow Chapel Choir, Dunedin Consort; John Butt [Recorded in Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 – 12 September and 2 November 2012; Linn CKD 419]

Central to the deliberations of any organization that resolves to perform Bach’s Johannes-Passion—after making the critical determination of by whom the bills will be paid—is choosing which edition of the monumental work to employ.  Like Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Bach’s Johannes-Passion exists in multiple versions, with differences both large and small among the respective editions.  Beginning with the first performance of the work in Leipzig in 1724, Johannes-Passion—the earliest of his extant Passions, though there is evidence suggesting that earlier scores have been lost—is a work to which Bach turned his editorial pen on numerous occasions, making changes throughout the 1730s and 1740s to all aspects of the work.  It is likely that Bach, as practical a composer for the church as Händel was for the theatre, adapted his Passions to the strengths of individual performers in successive performances.  This creates challenges for modern interpreters, as they are charged with matching the editions they choose for performance to the abilities of their soloists and instrumentalists.  In terms of the edition of Bach’s score used, this recording by the Dunedin Consort brings something completely unique to the Johannes-Passion discography: taking as its starting point a manuscript score for a 1739 performance that seemingly never took place, this performance incorporates additional music and material to reconstruct the full Passion Liturgy as it would have been performed at Leipzig during Bach’s tenure there.  Musically and dramatically, this performance offers a compelling Johannes-Passion set within a context that presents new insights into the historical provenance of the score and its composer’s efforts at revising it in order to create the most moving account of Christ’s suffering and salvation.

As in their previous recordings of Baroque repertory, the players of the Dunedin Consort prove themselves to be instrumentalists of extraordinary ability.  Their skill for playing the music of Bach will come as a surprise to no one who has heard their recording of the Matthäus-Passion, but their achievements on this recording are perhaps even more eloquent.  Those players who contribute solos to arias combine with the respective vocal soloists with ideal phrasing and attention to the nuances of the texts.  In addition to Dunedin Consort’s choral concertists and ripienists, the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir (directed by James Grossmith) and a congregational choir comprised of amateur singers combine to convincingly vary the sizes and textures of the choral movements.  It is known that congregations would have participated in the Passion chorales during Bach’s lifetime, and no other recording of the Johannes-Passion makes the sense of full congregational participation more palpable.  Listeners who know the Johannes-Passion intimately undoubtedly feel inspired to sing along with Bach’s beautifully simple but moving chorales: this performance not only renews this inspiration but issues an open invitation to the armchair chorister.

John Butt both directs this performance and plays the harpsichord and organ preludes that frame the Passion Liturgy.  A Bach interpreter whose credentials need no endorsement, Maestro Butt nonetheless brings to this performance of the Johannes-Passion a drive and commitment that confirm his status as one of today’s most dynamic conductors of Bach’s music.  Most refreshingly, Maestro Butt allows the integrity of his music-making to prove his points rather than attempting to justify his scholarship in tomes of editorial notes.  The liner notes that accompany this recording are informative, but Maestro Butt allows the questions posed by the uncertainty about the provenance of Bach’s first performances of Johannes-Passion and nearly three centuries of traditions developed and discarded to be answered by the performance.  Musicological achievements aside, Maestro Butt impresses anew solely as a musician.

Superb playing, choral singing, recording quality, and musical scholarship are for naught if a recording of Johannes-Passion lacks vocal soloists who rise to the occasion.  A particular hallmark of Dunedin Consort’s previous recordings of choral repertory has been the consistency of vocal excellence among the soloists, and this recording of Johannes-Passion proves worthy of its brethren in the Dunedin discography in this regard.  Even smaller, ancillary roles are assigned to singers of distinction, giving the performance increased musical and dramatic continuity.  Especially impressive is baritone Robert Davies, whose ringing voice and crisp diction lend his convincingly differentiated portrayals of the apostle Peter and Pontius Pilate depth and authority.

Joanne Lunn’s bright but not insubstantial soprano voice shines through Bach’s music like early-morning sunlight.  The technical aplomb with which Ms. Lunn sails through the considerable difficulties of the soprano arias in Johannes-Passion is remarkable, but it is the sincerity of her singing that is its greatest quality.  It is sometimes suggested that the music of Bach is more academically than emotionally effective, especially when compared with the often more extroverted music of Händel, but Ms. Lunn’s singing reveals that, when the vein is tapped by an insightful interpreter, Bach’s music bleeds with extraordinary emotional impact.  Ms. Lunn conveys the anguish inherent in much of her music with eloquence but without drooping, tonally or dramatically: she gets at the heart of each aria, bringing its sentiment to the surface without ever sacrificing musical poise or the purity of her vocal line.  Her performance of the tricky ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is superb, the daring chromatic writing rightly employed to heighten the soulful impact of the aria.  Among many fine recorded performances of the soprano arias, Ms. Lunn’s singing on this recording is unique in its youthful vibrancy and tasteful delivery of Bach’s deceptively difficult music.

Mezzo-soprano Claire Wilkinson is among the ranks of Bach singers whose voices are lighter in timbre than those of the contraltos of generations past, when singers like Gladys Ripley, Kathleen Ferrier, and Helen Watts frequented performances of Bach’s Passions in the British Isles.  The compensatory flexibility of Ms. Wilkinson’s voice is exceptional, however, and the assurance with which she sings her arias is wonderful.  Some of the most gorgeously plaintive moments in Johannes-Passion fall to the alto soloist, and Ms. Wilkinson never disappoints with her understated but intensely musical performance.  The loveliness of Ms. Wilkinson’s tone is complemented by the accuracy of her execution of Bach’s divisions, and the elegance of her phrasing suggests a memorable Lieder singer in the making.  Perhaps because German vowels are somewhat more congenial for English-speaking singers than those of Romance languages, Ms. Wilkinson’s diction is beautifully-inflected, following the cadences of speech effectively.  Ms. Wilkinson manages to combine heart and voice unusually movingly in Bach’s alto arias, not least in the extraordinary ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden.’

Matthew Brook sings both Jesus and the bass arias, a formidable challenge musically and dramatically.  Fortunately, Mr. Brook is up to the task.  Judging from the arias for bass in his Passions and the B-minor Mass, it is apparent that Bach enjoyed collaborations with bass soloists of exceptional abilities during his career, and Mr. Brook’s singing of the bass arias in this performance fulfils Bach’s expectations as set down in the score of Johannes-Passion.  Mr. Brook’s bass possesses gratifying weight of tone without heaviness, his technique permitting him to sing even Bach’s most demanding passages with no suggestions of lugubriousness.  As Christ, Mr. Brook proves tremendously effective, singing commandingly but also creating an aura of delightful affability: it is implying no sacrilege to suggest that Mr. Brook’s Christ sounds like the sort of fellow with whom one might enjoyably share a pint at the corner pub.  In many ways, Johannes-Passion is a deeply personal work, one in which Christ’s crucifixion is depicted not so much as a symbolically significant event but as one to which observers react individually.  Charisma is an important quality for the singer who portrays Christ, and Mr. Brook succeeds as few Christs on records have in depicting a figure who might legitimately inspire the affection and devotion expressed in Bach’s music.

Singing both the Evangelist and the tenor arias is Nicholas Mulroy, who also sang the tenor arias in the recent Hyperion recording of Johannes-Passion conducted by Stephen Layton.  Taking on both the Evangelist’s music and the tenor arias is a taxing assignment, and Mr. Mulroy confirms his importance as a Bach singer by performing so winningly on this recording.  Mr. Mulroy improves upon his fluent singing of the tenor arias on the Hyperion recording, inspired in the present performance to seemingly effortless feats of virtuosity.  The tenor’s aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ is as passionate an air for the tenor voice as was composed during the 18th Century, and Mr. Mulroy sings it with complete technical fluency and a firm, beautiful voice brimming with emotion.  To the Evangelist’s music Mr. Mulroy brings a darker, more substantial tone than many Evangelists of past generations possessed, which permits him to credibly engage the listener as a warm-blooded participant in the Passion rather than a chilly observer or celebrant.  The Apostles by whom the Passion is recounted in the Gospels were friends and followers who dearly loved Christ, after all, and a man and artist as sincere in his faith as history and his music suggest that Bach was can hardly have failed to view the Passions recorded by Christ’s Apostles as very personal histories rather than mere dogmatic propaganda.  Mr. Mulroy takes the treacherous tessitura of the Evangelist’s music in stride, applying a beautiful head resonance in the highest passages that avoids the falsetto employed by many singers of the part.  Mr. Mulroy’s performance fully justifies the decision to assign both the Evangelist’s music and the tenor arias to a single singer, a decision that in many instances would undermine the effectiveness of both parts.

There is a popular hymn in the American South that extols ‘what a friend we have in Jesus.’  One of Bach’s greatest achievements in Johannes-Passion is that one need not believe either the facts or the implications of the Passion story in order to be genuinely moved by the manner in which it is told.  The histrionic power of Bach’s music is such that even a tepid performance can be effective.  The present performance benefits not only from the legitimate scholarship and sophisticated advocacy of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort but also from an especially fine cast of soloists and gifted choristers giving of their considerable bests.  Johannes-Passion is an acknowledged masterpiece, but even the greatest works of art can grow greater still when re-evaluated with care.  A definitive performing version of Johannes-Passion will likely remain elusive, but in a performance such as this one, in which Bach’s music is sung by an Evangelist and a Christ of uncommon communicative gifts, everything simply sounds and feels right.