Pinchgut Opera: Bach and Telemann in Concert

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Published: 8th April, 2019

In many ways Pinchgut Opera’s first concert for 2019 was a mixture of the strange and wonderful. Perhaps the strangest aspect was the fact that Telemann’s Thunder Ode has never been performed in Australia until now, especially since, in his day, Telemann was even more famous than his friend and “rival” J. S Bach and this work enjoyed significant popular success.

A further element of the strange is evident in the disparity between the triumphant nature of the music and the circumstances that inspired it. The Thunder Ode was written in response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 on All Saints’ Day, when much of Lisbon was at prayer. Instead of a heart-rending lamentation at the catastrophic destruction caused by the earthquake and ensuing fires and tsunami, not to mention the 75,000 people killed, Telemann’s music is a joyous celebration of the power of nature. Why this should be so is open to speculation, but an almost tectonic shift in philosophical thought at the time goes some way to explain why Telemann presents man as a tiny part of the Creator’s universe.

The opening Hymn was an exciting affair with the Orchestra of the Antipodes on period instruments and the five soloists proclaiming “Wie ist dein so groß” (How great is your name) with thrilling fervor. Three trumpets and soloists with the vocal weight to equal twice their number joined strings, woodwinds and horn to evoke the heavens and distant worlds, while conductor Erin Helyard occasionally added his voice, turning to the singers from his harpsichord – the first of several athletic feats as he divided his attention between playing the harpsichord and organ and conducting. Smiles were exchanged between the singers at the end of this and following numbers, their shared enjoyment a feature of the festive spirit that prevailed.

And then, of course there was the timpani. Brian Nixon was in his element as he evoked nature’s might. Each movement features specific instruments: flutes, oboe, bassoon horn and solo trumpet, but the innovative solos for the timpani are central to the dramatic impact. Baritone David Greco and bass Andrew O’Connor relished every second of the splendid echoing duet “Er donnert, daß er verherrlichet werderde” (He thunders that He might be glorified) with its stirring timpani accompaniment. The listener had no need of the helpful surtitles to know what this closing number of Part One was about. Apart from the exhilarating orchestration, the flexibility and beauty of the male voices added greatly to the shock and awe generated. Coupled with some fine work from oboes and horn, O’Connor’s vocal agility also lent suitable colour and impetus to the florid passages of “Scharf sind deine Geschosse” (Sharp are your missiles).

Richard Butler’s tenor was sometimes a little on the delicate side in comparison with the vocal substance of the other singers, but a pleasing brightness in the upper notes complemented the featured solo trumpet effectively in “Deine Namens, des herrlichen” (Your glorious name). As was the case with the other singers, and the whole orchestra for that matter, vibrato was used sparingly. A stirring Lutheran Choral and a reprise of the opening Hymn concluded what many listeners would have found a musical revelation.

As somebody whose most profoundly moving spiritual experience was inspired by a piece of music by Telemann, I applaud Pinchgut Opera’s adding the Thunder Ode to their repertoire of neglected masterpieces. I’m sure I would not be alone in hoping further Telemann works (an opera in concert, perhaps?) will be presented in Melbourne in the near future.

Pairing the Thunder Ode with Bach’s Easter Oratorio was an inspired piece of programming. Less familiar than his Passions and Christmas Oratorio, it was appropriate to the season and made a suitable companion to the Telemann in terms of length and dramatic content. Instead of a narrator, four voices are assigned to the four characters: Mary the mother of James (soprano), Mary Magdalene (alto), Simon Peter (tenor) and John the Apostle (bass). Bach refashioned parts of his now lost secular Shepherd Cantata to present one scene: the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb. Like in the Telemann, all choral music was performed in a one-voice-to-a-part setting, in accordance with the custom at the time of composition. The work opened with a Sinfonia in jubilant mode with music for trilling trumpets and emphatic timpani bracketing a pair of mellifluous Baroque flutes.

The longest single piece for the evening came with the ten minute or so aria for soprano, sung with serene poise and warm tone by young Australian star on the rise, Alexandra Oomens. Each repeat was another opportunity to enjoy her easy resonance accompanied by plucked lower strings, organ and some extraordinarily beautiful flute playing by Melissa Farrow. Farrow continued to impress as she joined Mikaela Oberg on recorder for the so-called “slumber aria” for tenor, sung with considerable sensitivity by Butler. The inclusion of groaning cello and double base lines was a reminder of the bagpipe drone from the original bucolic material – strange and fascinating. Both outstanding singers, Anna Dowsley and David Greco gave dramatic presence to their roles. Dowsley’s lovely “Saget, saget mir geschwinde” (Tell me, tell me quickly) was further enhanced by Amy Power’s oboe d’amore.

A flourish of trumpets and timpani launched the closing chorus “Preis und Dank” (Praise and thanks) – a jubilant end to an uplifting evening of wonderful Baroque music.

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Heather Leviston attended Pinchgut Opera’s Bach and Telemann in Concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on April 6, 2019.