German speaking combined choir
Bach Comes to Town
Top Concert by German Speaking Combined Choir Bangkok
by Dr René Codoni
Personal note: A musical year that began with an outstanding "Nozze di Figaro" at Sydney and went on with a phenomenal new production of Monteverdi's "Il Ritorno d'Ulisee in Patria" by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Klaus Michael Grüber at Zurich. Back in Bangkok, my wife and myself picked up a leaflet at the Chesa Restaurant announcing this Bach Concert - jit (ie just in time), as it turned out, as the concert was to be held two days later! Among the performers many old friends and acquaintances, mostly from Swiss School circles. One of them has asked me if I could, "for the webpage", record the event. I happily oblige - critics, counter to the reputation of some of their lot, also like to praise if praise is deserved!
Bangkok concert goers are not spoilt when it comes to classical music, and mostly only get one kind of standard fare, perhaps most adequately labeled as "light wellness classics". Hence the aptly named and popular "Nestlé Classic(s)" series of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. Likewise also regularly quite uninspired performances - except, like just again, when such celebrities as "I Musici" turn up. But with big names and good quality performances, it is nearly always a conservative choice of program. As the see and be seen-aspects of such designer label events logically favour brand names, such a choice is quite logical.
This year's Combined Choir annual concert, with two works by Johann Sebastian Bach, was most welcomely different, an exceptional event: Not only did it present interesting music - The motet "Jesu, meine Freude" (Bachwerkverzeichnis, or BWV, 227), followed by the Lutheran Mass in F major (BWV 233) and made for a program quite out of the ordinary, but also did it give a performance of musical brilliance at all levels - choir, soloists, orchestra.
While clearly a joint and combined effort,
much praise for the outcome goes to the conductor cum choirmaster
of the evening, Rudolf Juker, who both selected the music and
rehearsed relentlessly since last August. His training as a qualified
"Organist und Kantor II" was indeed much in demand in
any capacity that evening, and, with a mixture of visible enthusiasm
and calm competence, he mastered his many tasks.
A rewarding choice
You don't take on Bach if you shun challenges, and Bach's reputation as the most outstanding of all Municipal Leipzig Cantors of St Thomas Church and School comes precisely from his extraordinary all-round talent and skills. His oeuvre, in rough chronological order, comprises organ works, works for other instruments including orchestra, and church compositions. This, in more colourful language, is the full gamut of preludes, passacaglias, toccatas and fugues, concertos, suites and sonatas, chorals, hymns, and cantatas, oratorios, motets and masses...
The two works chosen - the motet "Jesu, meine Freude" (sung in German) and the Lutheran mass in F major (sung in Latin) - reflect two different challenges: The motet is a technically difficult undertaking for any amateur choir because of its highly sophisticated architecture of five voices, but no lead (soprano) voice, which makes it a puzzle of simultaneity and an assembly headache. Conversely, the mass, while reasonably standard choir singing fare, requires a sizeable orchestra of considerable (Bach) period skill.
Also, a choice of considerable contrast: Sophisticated and refined as it is, the motet is a smooth and civilised exchange of orchestral, soloist and choir niceties when compared to the Missa, which is an outburst of orchestral and vocal energy, full-blast tutti of deep religiousity and ardent belief. While determined, harsh and jubilant in the Gloria, which is clearly its musical centerpiece, joyful and noisy, the mass can also be forcefully stiller in its more reflective sections.
Controversy and convention
Within Bach's oeuvre, both works are exceptional - there are only seven motets and four Lutheran masses, small numbers given his normal volume of production. As the program booklet (with a small, good selection of relevant articles by Albin Ruffner) elucidates, the mass was even challenged as "a put together rewrite" by no less a luminary than Albert Schweitzer, dedicated humanitarian doctor in the African jungle and world-renown Bach organist. Schweitzer's assessment is a bit puzzling - with Bach's large scale production of Sunday music (at the rate of 52 times a year), the re-use and rewrite of popular pieces would invariably be a common thing; further, to this reviewer, the mass musically does not come across as epigonal in any way or at any stage.
Much of the antagonism about Bach's Lutheran
masses stems from the notion that masses do not belong to Protestantism
at all, but are an alien (ie catholic) format. Yet as a technical
term, "Lutheran mass" primarily denotes what since the
reformation (or "Lutheran times") had become the standard
(six piece) mass of church music, with Kyrie/
Gloria/Domine Deus/Qui tollis/Quoniam (ie Sanctus)/Cum Sancto Spiritu, as we still know it today. That mass, as Luther ruled in one of his instructions to pastors back in 1528, could also be sung either in German or Latin - the choice to depend on local circumstances - of course was the second anathema to much the same opponents. Mass as an art form between times, and caught between religion and language!
Bach reception over the centuries is a truly puzzling succession of radically changing appreciations, and also covers a vast spectre of valuations by different "national" recipient cultures - like the more emotional French Bach view of Gounod and Liszt, to quote but one example. Likewise, the English - taking the "Oxford Compendium of Music" as a reference - seem considerably more relaxed on the "mass" subject. Germany, however, always the main production stage for Bach works, was affected by this controversy (or is it simply a prejudice?), and with it the performance of the Bach's Lutheran masses. Thanks hence once more to the choirmaster of this concert for his choice!
Conductor and choirmaster Rudolf Juker, the soloists - Jairat Pitak-charoen (soprano), Teeranai Na Nongkai (mezzo-soprano), Karsten Schulz (bass), and Shabai Rodenwaldt on the continuo, the small choir (with soloist voices for the motet) and the full choir have already been lauded for their performances much above average, both individually and in context. Remains to comment the performance of the (ad hoc) orchestra of 17 musicians, which was the true musical surprise of the evening.
Whatever the expectations of concertgoers that evening, one would have expected more trouble from the orchestral side than from the singers. The choir's job, from the very purpose of its organisation, is classical choir singing, a task, while still depending on individual skills and enthusiasm, it should (have) be(en) familiar with... Playing Bach is a different proposition, especially also for the difficult parts of the wind instruments. The spontaneous and lively performance of the mostly young musicians not only once more speaks for the skills of the conductor, but was also simply a refreshing demonstration of unrecorded musical professionalism.
Nearly every aspect deserves praise: The very genuine Bach sound, quite reminiscent of the technical polish of the late Karl Richter's Munich Bach Orchestra, the relentlessly frenzied but disciplined obstinate style of the strings, the clean and transparent intonation of the wind section (notably also the soloist oboes), and, more generally, the overall sparkly, vivacious and contagious joy of making music, a message which very successfully jumped over to the audience!
The church was well-suited for the event, with the only adequate organ in town (so the concert organizers say), but also comfortable chairs and a noiseless and efficient air-conditioning system. That the concert was well-attended - all seats seemed taken - must have pleased performers and sponsors alike, among the latter the Embassies of Germany and Switzerland, the "Pausenbrotverkauf DsSB", and BMW (Thailand). Congratulations, well done indeed!
30 June 2002
This page was renewed on: November 1, 2002
For Information, complains and support please send an Email to Albin Ruffner