Friday, July 19, 2013

Rheingau Musik Festival: Britten, War Requiem

July 18, 2013

Kloster Eberbach, Basilika

Christoph Prégardien - tenor
Thomas E. Bauer - baritone
Susanne Bernhard - soprano

Bachchor Mainz
Chor der Hochschule für Musik Mainz
Mainzer Domchor

Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern

Ralf Otto - conductor

Would it not be for the War Requiem, I've a nagging feeling the Britten Centenary would pass almost unnoticed in Germany.
OK, in this neck of the woods, Karlsruhe and Mannheim are staging, at the very end of their 2012/2013 seasons, Peter Grimes and Turn of the Screw respectively. And both productions are thankfully being revived in September, so I hope to see them then.
But inexplicably, Frankfurt Opera has shunned Britten completely both this season and next, surprising given its very solid Britten pedigree, with a memorable Owen Wingrave a few seasons ago and a perfectly presentable Death in Venice
And it doesn't feel as if performances of Britten's concert works -- never really a mainstay of German programming anyway -- have been any more numerous this year than in the past.

Except, that is, for his op. 66.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra gave two blistering performances under Mariss Jansons with Christian Gerhaher, Mark Padmore and Emily Magee in March.
And then followed the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle with soloists Matthias Goerne, John Mark Ainsley and Emily Magee in June.
Here's hoping that one or both of the concerts will be released on CD at some point.

Of course, the apparent rush of interest in the War Requiem in the centenary year is gratifying for someone  who used to drive his family to distraction as a schoolboy by repeatedly replaying a scratched and worn set of LPs of the composer's still unrivalled recording but didn't experience a live performance until much later. (If I remember correctly, it was under André Previn in the Royal Festival Hall in the late 80s.)
Since then, performances haven't really been ten-a-penny, even if the list of recordings continues to grow steadily.

Following the Munich performances in March and, after having missed the Berlin concerts in June, I must admit to having had some misgivings about what seemed a bit of B-grade line-up for a performance in Kloster Eberbach as part of this year's Rheingau Musik Festival.

I've never consciously heard the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern before, nor the conductor Ralf Otto.
I've long admired Christoph Prégardien as a Lied singer, even if his voice has aged noticeably in recent years. And whether he still had the vocal range for the demanding tenor part, not to mention a requisite command of English for Wilfred Owen's poems, was, in my mind, open to question.
I've always been very impressed by baritone Thomas E. Bauer the few times I've heard him in Austria.
But the soprano soloist, Susanne Bernhard, was a new name to me.

So it all seemed a bit of a mixed bag.  And with those two moving Munich concerts still very much in my ear, there was ample room for disappointment.
And then, of course, there were the acoustics.

As spectacular a setting the former Cistercian monastery in Eberbach is in the beautiful wine-growing area of the Rheingau, as a concert hall it is dire. And I've boycotted it ever since the misery of hearing a performance of Bach's B-minor Mass by John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi forces transformed into a distant, indifferentiable gloop of sound.

When I looked, only the cheapest tickets were still available online, which meant sitting somewhere at the back in a side aisle -- not an option at all.
So, when I called the hotline on an off-chance and was offered a top-price ticket in the front row, I didn't hestitate.

Things also began to look (or sound) up as I queued to collect my ticket.
The choir and orchestra were having a warm-up in the basilica and from outside, it sounded very promising.

Audiences in Eberbach aren't the most discerning or open-minded and I'd wager that only a handful had ever actually heard a work by Britten before, let alone the War Requiem.
So I steeled myself psychologically for a fair amount of fidgeting and bored leafing through the programme.

The basilica must be one of the only concert halls in the world where the risk of interruption by a swallow's cry is greater than the danger of a mobile phone going off.
The swallows nest in the apse high above where the orchestra is seated.
And their chirping was the only sound to be heard before the opening bars of the Requiem aeternam.

It immediately became apparent that my favourable impression of the snatches of the "Anspielprobe" I'd heard outside was correct.

Ralf Otto, chief conductor of the Bachchor Mainz, the main chorus of the evening, was in perfect control, with secure and astutely judged tempi, given the cavernous acoustics.

The small stage was crowded, with the chamber orchestra forming an inner circle around the conductor in the middle of the full-scale symphony orchestra.
The boys' voices were placed slightly behind to the right, in a side aisle.
Not really an ideal set-up for the contrasting sound-worlds that Britten had in mind.
Surely in a space as cavernous as this, more imagination could have been put into the positioning of the different ensembles instead of huddling them all together.
It certainly might have helped overcome some of the basilica's acoustical difficulties.

Prégardien proved to be the biggest surprise of the evening.
His voice does not have the ease or gleam it used to have in the top register.
But as well as being a consummate Lied singer, he is exemplary in oratorio, particularly as the Evangelist in Bach's Passions.
His experience and near faultless diction served him well here.
While his voice no longer has the shine and beauty of younger Britten tenors, this was a truly searing performance.
The final single rising line in the Agnus Dei -- "Dona nobis pacem" (the tenor's only snippet  of Latin text) -- was all the more moving precisely because Prégardien's voice cracked at the pianissimo top.

Baritone Thomas E. Bauer is much younger and his voice more supple and beautiful.
His German accent was also more audible than Prégardien's, but since Britten originally wrote the part for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau -- and it has become something of a tradition to give it to a German singer -- that was fine.

His is still a comparatively small voice, so I'm not sure Bauer would have been audible much further back. But his and Prégardien's interpretation of the final Wilfred Owen poem, "Strange Meeting", was suitably moving.

Just as Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau have still never been matched in the work, no soprano has ever surpassed Galina Vishnevskaya, either.
Susanne Bernhard has a nicely rounded voice, full and even across the range, but nowhere dramatic enough for this part.
In fact, according to the programme notes, Bernhard seems to specialise in lighter, more lyrical roles such as Susanna or Sophie, so one senses she was a little miscast here.

Indeed, situated further back behind the orchestra and in front of the choir, she also had trouble making herself heard at times and was totally drowned out in the closing pages of the Libera me where the soprano line should really soar.

The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern may not be the Berlin Philharmonic or the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but acquitted themselves very ably. The chamber orchestra in particular seemed tuned in to Britten's idiom.
No complaints either about the Bachchor Mainz, which was always alert, every word clearly audible.

Predictably, the Eberbach audience -- here for the event rather than the music -- gave the performance standing ovations.
But it should be noted that the most vocal shouters of "Bravo" were precisely those who had flipped endlessly and noisily through their programmes for most of the evening and shattered the magical closing silence with premature applause.
Enough said?

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