RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Concert Report/ Philippe Herreweghe & Collegium Vocale Gent

img  Tobias

Philippe Herreweghe has battled fiercely, spiritedly and successfully for the emancipation of old music, ancient instruments and historical practice. Tonight, however, he is losing his fight against the microphone. Herreweghe doesn't really seem to feel comfortable as he takes his seat on stage with the Lufthansa Festival's Artistic Director Lindsey Kemp for a pre-concert chat, struggling with his thoughts (probably focused more on the upcoming performance than on discussing his personal biography and his stance towards Bach), his vocabulary (mixing French, German and English into a peculiar, creatively appealing, but slightly obscure new language) and the acoustics of the concert hall (which he praises as a perfect space for playing Bach, but whose indirect sound characteristics send his thoughts all over the place, making it hard even on those a few meters away from him to follow the entire conversation). It's a pity, really, because Kemp poses some interesting questions and because Herreweghe has a lot to tell, beginning with the early days of his most famous ensemble, the Collegium Vocale Gent, how Nicolas Harnoncourt and others influenced his views on interpretation and the debates he had to enter on why what he did was “justified”.

With regards to the program to be performed tonight, he has two important statements to make. Firstly, that not all of Bach's cantatas can be considered masterpieces quality-wise and that, even though this might be regarded as a sacrilege by some, there are both truly inspired moments and “merely” solidly crafted ones among them (which is why he has submitted his live selections to an unscrupulous and intense selection process). And secondly, he claims that the fact that today's audiences are no longer largely composed of deep believers need not render the sacral oeuvre of Bach without value. Even though the magic he once experienced on a night in Nijmegen (in the Netherlands), when he, as a young, devoted Christian, played in front of a Protestant audience and felt a bond of great intensity and importance, may never return, the beauty and splendor of these pieces have the power to transcend their religious aspect and turn into something altogether different and fascinating.

Next to the aforementioned fundamentals of his perspective, a third thesis, which he and Kemp only briefly touch upon, will be also be fully proven tonight: Namely that playing Bach does not require a huge-scale orchestra and choir to make an impact. Even though seeing all musicians involved side by side on St. John's podium is still impressive, this slender version never sounds as though it were put on a restrictive diet. A clever choreography first introduces the Collegium, who enter from behind the purple curtains at the side and take ample time to tune their instruments, before the choir and the soloists march past the spectators from all the way back to the front, making for a festive beginning. Herreweghe, all buttoned down and dressed up in black, has brought with him a Quartet of promising talents – or, tp be more accurate, of rising stars in their own right: Soprano Dorothee Mields, who has already toured with the Collegium under a different director (Masaaki Suzuki), Counter Tenor Damien Guillon (a former student of Andreas Scholl), organist-turned-Tenor Jan Kobow as well as Bassist Stephen Macleod, whose breadth of repertoire shows him equally at home in the old music and contemporary department.

All three works this evening have their highlights and their own distinct form and narrative. And yet, the Easter Oratorio gets things started in a mesmerising fashion, which will prove to be hard to beat. After two instrumental  introductory movements and the arrival of the Choir, Mields has her first chance to shine in the drawn-out Aria “Seele, deine Spezereien” (“My Soul, your spices”). Essentially a monologue and inner reflection, she leads the piece deeper and deeper into the dark caves and corners of her heart with each variation, the work developing a hypnotic magnetism. Duetting with Flutist Patrick Beuckels, whose returning ornamentations and solos further the impression of a spiritual meditation, she exorcises the gradual transformation of pain and fear into acceptance and hope. As on later, more upbeat and celebratory occasions, she gently sways with the rhythm on stage, feeling the music and moving in a trance, as if rocking herself into full concentration.

The male faction of the line-up also clearly enjoys the backing of the Collegium, whose warm and engaged sound attains a double quality of supporting the singers and constituting an own layer of meaning. In accordance with the score, different instrumental groups form during the course of the piece, connecting into multi-shaded timbres. What Herreweghe shows is that these processes are never solely motivated by color and not once coincidental. In the aria “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” (“Jesus, thy dear mercy's glances”) from the concluding “Ascension Oratorio”, the pensive mood of the lyrics is answered by a completely bass-less instrumental section, whose floating and perpetually pending oscillations never fully materialise.

Each singer makes a completely different use of the ensemble's powers. While Guillon bathes in their sound, allowing his crystal-clear voice to soar high above the crowd, Kobow needs to give his all to be heard in the moments which require him to gauge the depths of his register, awarding more of a competitive edge to his collaboration with the group. MacLeod, meanwhile, is a perfectly confident narrator in the recitatives and an emphatic vocalist in his arias, when he stresses both the feel of his words as well as the melodic arch spanned by them.

The fact that the audience bestows most affection on some of the Collegium's soloists, instead of on the congenial vocal guests, proves that Herreweghe leads a group of strong individual performers. Even though his generous gestures towards his colleagues during the rapturous applause that rages for minutes at the end and forces them to reclaim the podium for an encore, seem to suggest a modest and servile personality, there can be no doubt that he exercises a firm rule. With minimal movements of his hand, he marks rhythm, melody and longevity of important passages, unifying the individual voices into a solidified current of sound. Watching him streamlining the music, his anecdote from the talk with Kemp about a concert in Rotterdam, when a misinterpreted gesture caused the audience to sing along with him for an entire evening, suddenly sounds completely plausible.

When he announces the encore, noone can understand what he's saying, but music proves to be a more effective means of communication once again. Herreweghe may have his frills and fads, but he is still a man with a message. When I walk round St. John's during the interval, I spot him standing with some of the musicians at the back entrance, clasping a cigarette, debating and looking decidedly determined. The determination has paid off – this is his evening, even though the spotlights were directed at others.

Picture by Michel Garnier

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music
Homepage: Collegium Vocale Gent

Article in serie

1 Concert Program/ Philippe Herreweghe & Collegium Vocale Gent
From the official Program Notes: ...
2 Concert Report/ Philippe Herreweghe & Collegium Vocale Gent
Live at St. John's Smith ...
3 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2008: Day 2
London, May 16th: Philippe Herreweghe ...

Related articles

Concert Report: Lev Vinocour
Live at the Schloss vor ...
Juan Diego Florez: Tenor promises Bel Canto Spectacular
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez ...
Concert Program/ Ensemble San Felice: "Handel - Rodrigo"
From the official Program Notes: ...
Concert Report/ Concordia & Elin Manahan Thomas
Lie at St. John's Smith ...

Partner sites