The season has started! My season, that is. Tonight I went to my first ‘show’ since my arrival in Berlin. I say ‘show’, but it was – for me -- a rather unconventional starter: not an opera, a concert, a musical … but an oratorio, performed by amateurs in a suburban church, in the lead-up to Easter.
At this time of the year, the churches of Berlin feature major sacred works – the Bach Passions seem to be the most favoured – and tonight I could have, had I wished (and I did), taken in the Mozart Requiem at Templehof. But I chose to go to the Auenkirche in Wilmersdorf where they were performing a piece I’ve been mentioning in my writings recently, but had never heard: Dvorak’s Stabat Mater.
I went with few expectations, but a lot of interest and curiosity.
The church itself is great fun. Late C19th German architecture, lovingly titivated. Though its organ (like all church organs and most roofs) is begging rather embarrassingly for money. Also charging it. We bought seats in the organ loft at 25 euros ($50) each, which gave us the right to a very hard small chair in the front row with a large bar at eye level. I sat bolt upright all night to see over; Paul crouched to see under.
But there was no trouble hearing. The church has a reverberant auditorium. Well, I say ‘no trouble’ but … if you put a sizeable (and sometimes inaccurate) orchestra in FRONT of the singers …especially an orchestra which plays forte to mezzo forte all night, it’s a bit hard on the ears of the audience. And on the soloists. They (for they were professionals) earned their money.
I’m going to start at the end. I went for the piece. And I came out disappointed. I liked the (long) opening ‘Stabat Mater’ with its ditsy little tunes and phrases shaking up the too classical chorus sections, but the choral parts soon became far too samey and old-fashioned, and eventually I became bored. The solos were better, but … well, if you are going to set a text with which Pergolesi and Rossini have made such a huge hit, you really have to come up with something more original and exciting. I was reminded of Elton John resetting Aida.
OK, it may have been partly the performance. The choir of over a hundred (with the usual amount of white hair) laboured willingly. They sang softly (that was nice), they sang loudly, they sang very loudly, but somehow it was just a body of sound, fairly unforgiving in time and tune. And I didn’t hear one word I could recognise between the ‘Stabat Mater’ and the ‘Inflammatus’ (and I’ve got an MA in Latin).
The ghost of Rossini hovered in more ways than one. The ‘Inflammatus’ here is written for contralto (rather than Rossini’s dazzling soprano) and it pales by comparison. Our alto tonight was very competent: but we got good taste rather than Princess Eboli. No flames.
The soloists – two from Magdeburg, two from the celebrated RIAS Kammerchor – were well-chosen and pretty impeccable. My favourite (and Paul’s) was the bass, Martin-Jan Nijhof, a young man with a lovely creamy bass-baritone voice which reminded me of what I wanted to be 50 years ago. Soprano Anita Bader (like Nijhof, from Magdeburg) produced some splendid, pure sounds in the rather under-used soprano part, and Waltraut Heinrich (contralto) did her best with the ‘Inflammatus’ that didn’t flame. And the tenor. Poor Joachim Buhrmann! A first-rate, if rather dry, old-music-style tenor ... he couldn’t stop himself from twitching his hand, trying to get the inflexible conductor to ….. (censored)
So, all said, I went to hear the piece. It disappointed me.
I expected nothing of the performance, and I got the odd nice surprise. The soft chorus bits in the ‘Stabat Mater’ and above all, a really fine bass singer.
Thank you, Auenkirche, for letting me (at a price) hear this work.
Do the Rossini next year, and I’ll come back to your lovely church.