Spiritual Unity

Jesse Simon
jueves, 16 de noviembre de 2017
Ton Koopman © OCNE Ton Koopman © OCNE
Berlin, sábado, 28 de octubre de 2017. Philharmonie. Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232. Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, alto. Tilman Lichdi, tenor; y Klaus Mertens, bass. RIAS Kammerchor. Berlin Philharmonic. Ton Koopman, conductor

Anyone who becomes familiar with the music of Bach’s B minor Mass before delving into the history may be surprised to learn that, not only were the various sections written at different times but also for very different purposes; it was only at the end of Bach’s life that they were compiled (with a few newly composed additions) into the single work we know today. But while the seams of the mass remain unconcealed, it nonetheless conveys a remarkable unity; and when given a performance as joyously energetic as the recent one by Ton Koopman and the Berlin Philharmonic it can be one of life’s greatest musical pleasures.

Over the past decades Ton Koopman has built a name for himself as a first class baroque specialist with an attention to period practices. Yet the music performed on this evening had none of the textural austerity or hurried tempi that one might associate with a rigorously ‘authentic’ performance. When standing at the front of the Philharmonie stage, sculpting the choral and orchestral details with oversized arm movements, Mr Koopman conveyed the undiluted joy of someone who could imagine no greater thrill in life than conducting Bach’s great mass. And his enthusiasm was infectious: there did not appear to be anyone who wasn’t immensely pleased to be there, and the music that emerged was marked by the extra level of inspiration that separates an extraordinary performance from a merely great one.

Mr Koopman’s energy never seemed to translate into an excess of anything. The opening ‘Kyrie’ moved forward with a pace that was urgent but not reckless, and even in the few instances when the tempi seemed notably rapid – the bracing opening bars of the ‘Gloria’, for instance – nothing was showy or unjustified. Yet the mass attained its invigorating momentum less from Mr Koopman’s flawlessly judged tempi than from his ability to locate and highlight the rhythmic undercurrents of a given section. Under his direction, slower sections such as the ‘Crucifixus’ of the Credo sounded fresh and lively, the brisk movements has an unrushed exuberance, and even the most stately passages had a spring to their step.

The Berlin Philharmonic, pared down to an ensemble of twenty-seven strings, plus organ, timpani, pairs of woodwinds, and a trio of trumpets, created a sound both richly textured and stunningly intimate. This was undeniably a performance designed to let every note be heard, but Mr Koopman’s desire to highlight the architectural majesty of the score never resulted in moments that sounded forced or underplayed. The individual instrumentalists played with the highest possible distinction: the solo flute introduction to ‘Domine Deus’ was articulate and graceful, and the oboe in ‘Qui sedes ad dextram Patris’ set a perfectly mournful tone; throughout the evening the timpani was a model of good judgment, and the trumpets of the orchestra have quite possibly never sounded better, as though they had been sitting patiently through years of romantic symphonies just for the chance to lift ‘Et in terra pax’ to its jubilant conclusion.

The group of soloists assembled for the evening was close to ideal. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was responsible for several of the evening’s finest moments: in the grave, beautifully sculpted ‘Agnus Dei’ the rotund clarity of the opening section gave way to a quietly captivating conclusion; the magnificent ‘Qui sedes’ was close to perfect, answering the lamentations of the oboe with tremendous resolve. Soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez sang her part of the ‘Domine Deus’ duet with unconcealed delight and a voice that seemed to gather in depth as it moved upward. When she and Ms Lehmkuhl joined forces for ‘Christe Eleison’ the results were breathtaking: buoyed by Mr Koopman’s rhythmic vitality, the two sang with unsurpassed richness and poise, their lines subtly differentiated but always beautifully intertwined.

Klaus Mertens brought a reassuring steadiness to the bass arias: if ‘Et in spiritum sanctum’ was the more overtly melodic, ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ had the gentle drama and resolution of a well-told story. Tenor Tilman Lichdi sang his part of ‘Domine Deus’ with an effortless agility and brought the ‘Benedictus’ to life with crisp articulation and subtle mid-range warmth. The thirty-six singers of RIAS Kammerchor maintained a near-perfect balance with the orchestra throughout the evening while letting none of the work’s vocal polyphony go unnoticed. The interwoven parts of the opening Kyrie emerged with stunning clarity, and the Osannas of the final part were a source of great delight.

In the course of the past century, the B minor Mass has been performed, recorded, studied and lauded to such an extent that it may no longer hold many surprises. On this evening, Mr Koopman did not seem intent on forcing us to reconsider a masterpiece by pointing out hidden details or imposing a style too heavily rooted in the theory and scholarship; but by performing the music with a straightforward simplicity and an unwavering belief in the sublimity of the score, he managed something far greater than surprise: he reminded us not merely of the greatness of a great work, but of all the extraordinary moments and details that made us fall in love with it in the first place.

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