Two visions of Bach

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Published: 1st April, 2016

The events of Good Friday dominate much of the music heard at Easter, and this year was no exception for Melbourne audiences. Classic Melbourne chose to hear the massive St Matthew Passion on Friday, and on the following Wednesday, Latitude 37’s program, Bach and his Ancestors. Although the scope of each concert was vastly different (both were at the Melbourne Recital Centre, but the Passion was in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall while the other squeezed its audience into the Salon), it was the similarities rather than the differences that impressed.

The first was the scholarly approach to the works. Core members of Latitude 37 – violin Julie Fredersdorff, viola da gamba Laura Vaughan, harpsichord Donald Nicholson – gave insight into each of the five works, as is their wont, covering matters as broad as contemporary attitudes to death and the exact familial relationship of J S Bach and Johann Christoph Bach (second cousins). Musical director and conductor of the Melbourne Bach Choir, Rick Prakhoff, went a great deal further with program notes too dense to read on the day, but illuminating as a retrospective.

To summarise the structure of the great work that is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: there were two distinct main choirs (The Melbourne Bach Choirs – and Orchestras) with the Choir of St. Michael’s Grammar school forming the ripieno choir in the side balcony. This separation allowed for greater clarity in the many polyphonic passages, as well as an antiphonal sound that later lent itself to the shouts of a boisterous mob. There were ten soloists, with two (Andrew Goodwin as the Evangelist; Warwick Fyfe as Jesus) positioned at the front of the stage, and the others in a row behind them (and sadly, obscured from many viewpoints). Mezzo Sally Anne Russell’s distinctive voice was recognisable from her Messiah fame, and she appeared to have more arias than fellow mezzo Belinda Paterson; Lorina Gore and Jacqueline Porter were the sopranos; tenors were Henry Choo and Michael Petruccelli and basses Andrew Collis and Jeremy Kleeman. All deserved praise – and a more prominent position!

Although his was not as large a role as his central character might suggest, Warwick Fyfe did good work with Jesus, infusing crucial moments with an operatic style, as in denouncing the traitor Judas at the Last Supper. His moving death scene is shared seamlessly with the Evangelist, whose announcement of his Lord’s passing is restrained but powerful. As the Evangelist tenor Andrew Goodwin had by far the greatest role, in terms of emotional range and sheer number of notes! He was consistently up to the task, with a rich, steady and resonant – and apparently tireless – sound that was a delight to hear.

The choirs played their part well, with tenderness in the familiar Chorales, and vigorous evocation of the bewildered and angry mob who were such a part of the story. Prakhoff proved himself to be far more than a literate and captivating writer, conducting this lengthy work of nearly three hours with a steady hand and an ear for the nuances of the script. The orchestra, whether considered as one or two groups, responded by being a worthy contributor in its own right, as well as lending great support to soloists and chorus. Altogether the concert was a triumph, and wanted only for one thing: a large baroque Church which would add ambience as well as the perfect acoustics that the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was able to contribute.

Although it is the smaller performance space in the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Salon has an ambience through its music in the round set-up, ideal for chamber music. Having a packed room simply adds to the atmosphere, at no detriment to the acoustics. So it was for Latitude 37’s concert, Bach and his Ancestors, performed last Wednesday as part of the Local Heroes series, and the first of three related concerts the baroque ensemble will present this year. Although the composers Dietrich Becker and Franz Tunder were musical “ancestors” Johann Christoph Bach was part of the Bach family (as has been noted, a cousin, born 40 years before Johann Sebastian Bach and alive until the younger musician was 18). J.S.Bach called him “The Profound Composer”.

The Latitude 37 ‘family” of three was augmented by string players David Irving, Laura Moore and Ruth Wilkinson, oboist Kirsten Barry and bass baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos, fine musicians all. Three of the five items featured the singer and it must be said that, as with Andrew Goodwin in the St. Matthew Passion, Dinopoulos attracted most attention every time he sang. First was Franz Tunder’s O Jesu dulcissime. After a long instrumental introduction, Dinopoulos showed the range of this voice, its resonance and flexibility in a series of runs.

This was immediately followed by J.C.Bach’s Lament Wie bist du denn, O Gott  in which Dinopoulos used a number of vocal techniques to deal with a challenging score (not least an almost impossibly low note). The impression was again of the flexibility of his voice, and his attention to details such as dynamics and pacing right up to the final dialogue – with a busy violin and a measured ground bass sound from the rest.

Dietrich Becker’s Sonata a 5 gave the singer some breathing space, and was a joy in its own right. A contrast to the composer’s earlier item, Paduan a 5, this work was alternately in minor and major keys and had a sweetness from the outset with a solemnity that at times developed into a sprightly piece. The ensemble was notable for its perfect timing, particularly the last phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of Johann Sebastian Bach and his cantata Ich habe genug which was accompanied by the happy combination of oboe, two violins, viola, organ and continuo. Comprising two recitatives and three arias this work again shone the spotlight on Nicholas Dinopoulos, and could be compared to the function of the Evangelist in the Passion as the singer narrated a “story” with a range of emotions at its heart.

Dinopoulos captivated the audience from the outset, his voice melding beautifully with the instruments, particularly Barry’s oboe. He used it to differentiate the various sections, from, joy to despair – but always with a sense of calm. The cantata was a demanding work for all performers, but was a wonderful choice to end a concert which had throughout been so satisfying. In this sense, despite its relative brevity, this concert was worthy of comparison with the massive Passion heard earlier in the week.

The Melbourne Bach Choir supplied this photograph of the concert reviewed. It was taken by Gary Beresford.