in: Reviews

November 10, 2013

Rebel Without Much Cause

by

The Baroque instrumental ensemble Rebel played Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall with the “English-German” tenor Rufus Müller. The group’s name, which is accented on the second syllable, is that of the French 18th-century composer-violinist Jean-Féry Rebel, who was also a conductor of the Paris Opera. Although there were several French-influenced pieces on the program, there was little French in its sound or execution. And whereas the name of the group, pronounced as in English, suggests that it aspires toward the unconventional, these ears sensed nothing particularly rebellious in Sunday’s performance.

Although billed as a “baroque orchestra,” Rebel on this occasion consisted of violinists and co-directors Jörg-Micahel Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer, joined by oboist Meg Owens and just three other string players, alongside keyboardist Dongsok Shin alternating between harpsichord and organ. They offered what should have been an engaging concert, combining familiar works with unfamiliar ones from the later Baroque. Alas, I found this a poorly conceived program, for the most part performed cleanly but without a great deal of imagination.

It was a bad sign at the outset when the audience was asked not to applaud between numbers, as this would disturb the “flow” of what was said to be a carefully constructed program. But the program’s title, “Out of the Eclipse: Music of Transformation and Revelation,” had little to do with anything on it. This was simply a selection of various sorts of instrumental pieces alternating with arias from cantatas by Telemann and oratorios by Handel.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except, as I’ve complained on other occasions, it makes it difficult for both listeners and performers to get deeply into the very different sonic and expressive worlds of say, a quirky English chaconne from around 1660 and a Telemann aria from seventy years later. The three Telemann arias, already excerpted from the small-scale cantatas of his Harmonischer Gottesdienst and its so-called Fortsetzung (Continuation), seemed further diminished when scattered about the program instead of being given as one set. It didn’t help that no texts or translations were supplied, nor did the otherwise informative program notes by cellist John Moran tell us anything about the subject matter of these, or of the four Handel arias.

I found it especially odd not to be allowed to applaud the soloist in a concerto or an aria. Particularly in an intimate space such as Calderwood, applause, together with its acknowledgement by the performers, is a way of establishing rapport between audience and musicians. Without it, the juxtaposition at the beginning of the program, of the overture to Handel’s opera Agrippina, in G minor, and Vivaldi’s Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in the remote key of B minor, was grating. Maybe that was intended, but long intervals for tuning after other pieces destroyed any sense of “flow” overall. The English conductor Roger Norrington makes a point of inviting audience members to clap even between movements if they are so inclined. I wouldn’t advocate doing this merely because it was the practice at the time this music was composed. But having to suppress the urge to applaud can make one feel as if attending a funeral rather than something fun or exciting.

Besides the pieces mentioned so far, the program included Vivaldi’s other sepolcro work, a sonata in E-flat (both may have been written for Lenten observances in Vienna). There were also chaconnes by John Blow and Henry Purcell, as well as the latter’s Fantasia “on one note.” Bach’s A-Major Harpsichord Concerto was done in a version for oboe d’amore that was published in 1970 as a putative reconstruction of Bach’s original (the program failed to identify this fully; it is the work of Wilfried Fischer)

The concerto was not the only Bach curiosity on the program, which also included the aria “Zerschmettert mich” from the 1725 version of his St. John Passion (BWV 245b). There the aria is an outburst of remorse following Peter’s denial of Christ, which is narrated in a famous recitative; the latter’s tortuous melodic line on the words “wept bitterly” is echoed in the present aria. The aria, whose bursts of figuration for the first violin are continually interrupted by passages of expressive arioso, was sung and played as well as anything on the program. But I fear that here, even more than in the Telemann arias, most of the audience had no clue as to what was going on, in the absence of a printed translation. This was a shame, for Müller sang with his usual clarity, instilling some understated drama where appropriate here as in the Handel selections.

Unfortunately, much of this music was written for a genuine Baroque orchestra, with at least doubled violins—not a chamber ensemble. Even the Purcell fantasia, which calls for five parts (not six as indicated in the program), was under-scored; the note C, which is repeated without change throughout the piece, had to be provided by the organ. Playing the part on a string instrument as intended would have allowed it to swell and diminish in response to the other players. Holding the note out on the organ at the end of the piece, after the other players had finished, did make it possible to segue directly from this work into Handel’s aria “Tune your harps,” from the oratorio Esther. I found this more silly than clever, even if the oboe does begin the latter selection on the same note. But at least in this case the absence of applause made it possible to connect two successive selections. In this aria, moreover, the pizzicato strings—representing harps—accompanied the lyrical oboe and tenor in a way that for once sounded really delightful.

In other selections, however, the problem of too-small forces was exacerbated by the extremely dry acoustic of Calderwood Hall. This did little to blend or amplify the sound of the individual instruments, at least where I was sitting. Having both performed in and reviewed concerts when the hall was new, nearly two years ago, I found that my initial enthusiasm for the space was not sustained on this occasion. The hall’s in-the-round (or rather in-the-square) design presents difficult challenges for both performers and listeners (for BMInt’s initial report on the hall, go here). Müller sang some arias facing one side of the hall, others facing in the opposite direction. This meant that everyone got to see him some of the time. But, particularly when confronted by a solo voice, a listener’s experience is surely better when hearing direct rather than reflected sound. I don’t think this is merely a matter of psychology, although of course it helps in vocal music to see the singer’s face and gestures.

The sound seemed to me only slightly better when I moved upstairs and to the opposite side of the hall, after hearing the first half seated on the floor just behind the harpsichord—which was nevertheless almost inaudible there. Seated farther from the instruments, I thought that they blended together a little better, but not enough to sound like the orchestra needed in some of the pieces. Strangely, however, some passages written for just voice or oboe with basso continuo were over-scored, as the double bass rumbled along together with cello and harpsichord or organ. Bassist Anne Trout has a sure hand and was doubtless playing as lightly as possible, but the result nevertheless sounded heavy, weighing down passages especially in the Telemann arias and the Bach concerto (which, unlike the rest of the program, really are chamber pieces).

A contributing factor may be that Rebel’s approach to string (and wind) playing seems a mixture of modern “historically informed” practice with the driven sort of performance that one heard especially in “modern” instrument groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Many pieces suffered from an aggressive and fairly uniform approach to articulation, with little imagination paid to sound or rhythm, or so it seemed from my vantage points. I was particularly disappointed to hear little response to the extraordinary harmonies in either the French-influenced dances by Blow and Purcell or the Vivaldi sinfonia. Their performances revealed little awareness of the unconventional dissonances and remote modulations of these extraordinary pieces.

By the same token, the two chaconnes only intermittently had any dance character, which was missing also from Handel’s aria “Your charms to ruin” (Samson’s retort to Delilah). This too is a dance, using the rhythm of the siciliano, a type of slow gigue, but the performance missed the odd mixture of grace and regret that Handel seems to have envisioned for the aria. On the plus side, Rebel’s approach gave the first aria, Samson’s “Total eclipse,” as well as the concluding “His mighty arm” (from Jephtha), some of the forcefulness that each requires. Müller nevertheless maintained a light approach to the coloratura in the final aria, which I believe brought the concert to a rousing close—insofar as I could tell, from my seat above and directly behind the singer.

No review would be complete without a few quibbles about the printed program. It’s really not right to refer to the Telemann items as, for instance, “aria from Cantata No. 2 in C Minor.” Most cantatas, including this one, are not in a single key, and this is no. 2 only of the set in which it was first published, not of Telemann’s cantatas as a whole. Some sort of editing glitch deprived the conscientiously written program notes not only of italics (for original titles) but of proper formatting for an interesting block quotation. These may be merely copy editor concerns, but surely I was not the only member of the audience who wondered why, besides lacking texts for the vocal numbers, the program also failed to provide any information about the two soloists. Not only were we barred from clapping for them, we were also told nothing about them!

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your review, which is right on in every detail. Having come with high expectations, I ended up so annoyed by both the printed program and the lusterless performances that I left at intermission. To be accurate, then, I suppose I should say “Your review is right on, certainly at least for the first half of the program, which is the only half I heard.” Calderwood is a horrible venue. Each season I attend fewer and fewer concerts there. This may well have been my last visit.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 12, 2013 at 11:19 am

  2. I tremble at the prospect of being reviewed by Mr. Schulenberg.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — November 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm

  3. I would tremble too, but I sense he will leap to give compliment when he hears something genuinely transcendent-sounding, and from the heart. I applaud Mr. Schulenberg for the thoroughness of this review and the articulate manner in which he describes all things good and bad in this concert. I wasn’t there, but the cleverness of his review title and the quality of his writing thoroughly brought me the experience he had. Thank you!

    Comment by Jagan Nath Khalsa — November 13, 2013 at 10:22 am

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