Sunday 11 January 2009

From the sublime to ridiculous (and most things in between)

Tonight's performance of Haydn's Creation had it all, but I will start with the sublime: the choral team. They were led by Thomas Quasthoff, whose magnificent bass-baritone I've not previously had the pleasure of encountering, at least, not in the concert hall. But the other two soloists had nothing to be ashamed of: soprano Julia Kleiter had a beautiful and, mercifully, vibrato free voice; tenor Maximillian Schmitt was very fine too. Behind them the RIAS Chamber Choir were on fine form.

Elsewhere there were problems. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra arrived on stage and took the longest time tuning, and tuning in a way that didn't sound particularly encouraging. Now, before anyone aggressively gets on my case, I'll save them the trouble and mention the word period, as in period instruments. Now, it's true that, as a general rule, I'm not a fan. I tend to believe that new instruments evolved because they were in some way superior to the ones they replaced and, in much the same way as we don't use cell phones from 1983 or invite neanderthals round to dinner, by and large one is better off not going back to them. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learnt from period practice, Charles Mackerras is strong evidence that there are, just that these things can often be taken much further than is my taste.

I mention this because when I say what I'm about to, namely that the Freiburg Orchestra sounded terrible for much of the concert, some bright spark will say that's just the period sound and that's just how it should sound. Well it's not, and it wasn't. Certainly, the period sound is different (and rather thin, which is one reason I don't like it). It is also at a slightly different pitch. What it is not, and what the Freiberg were, is seriously out of tune and generally all over the place. Verging on painfully so on both counts. I'd use the word amateurish, but that's an insult to amateurs. To be that out of tune (and, I've been at one or two concerts where this has happened, though in both of those cases it was a failure of tuning between orchestra and soloist) must be patently obvious to players, and to conductors, Rene Jacobs I'm looking at you: I don't understand why they don't just stop and fix it, it surely isn't that difficult, if they think we haven't noticed they're living in cloud cuckoo land.

It was a massive shame, as it seriously intruded on the superb singing, so much so that, by the time we reached the end of part one, I half hoped conductor and band would depart and leave the singers to it (judging from the lukewarm applause at this point, I may not have been alone). It was not to be. Fortunately, they had another extended tuning session and this time got much closer to the mark, though they still weren't entirely together. It might be argued that the ear attunes to the period, but I've never had such an issue with, say, concerts from Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (another period ensemble). It doesn't, either, account for the sea change between parts one and two. Part three found the orchestra on their best, and actually fairly respectable, form. Though they still had a good degree of the standard period sound for which I do not entirely care.

Jacobs' reading was nothing to write home about. I suppose in some ways we should be grateful: what I have heard of him on disc, his Mozart recordings in particular, I find horribly mannered. That said, there were some odd touches. The overture was taken torturously slowly. Now, one of the things about period instruments is that you can't sustain slow tempi as well, in my view, and it really showed; which is, I'm sure, why such instruments tend to be accompanied by a quicker pace.

One last gripe was the continuo piano of Sebastian Wienand. On a very early piano, he seemed to be using a lot of ornamentation (something of the period), but in a manner that was horribly intrusive, for example swamping Kleiter's Eve at one otherwise lovely moment in third part.

It makes for interesting comparison with the last time I heard the creation. The band was not too different in size, but massively better - it was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, and formed the opening concert of the 2006 season. While the soloists were very good, it was the beauty of the orchestral playing that really stands out in my memory, that and the SCO Chorus. Well, that and the Usher Hall fire alarm going off midway through part three, forcing evacuation; incredibly, they started up again, nearly half an hour later, as if nothing had happened.

However, for all those complaints, and there are a lot of them, I was still very glad to had gone. Mainly for the transporting experience one got every time Quasthoff and Kleiter opened their mouths - certainly these are two to watch, or rather hear. Interestingly, I note from his biography, that his Vienna Staatsoper debut was in the role of Amfortas (in Parsifal) with one Donald Runnicles conducting. Perhaps Quasthoff might join him for a concert with the BBC Scottish one day?

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