October 13, 2006

The Pure Tone

Sir Roger Norrington leads the Berlin Philharmonic and the RIAS Kammerchor through Bach's B-Minor Mass


Johann Sebastian Bach
B-Minor Mass


Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Roger Norrington - Conductor
Susan Gritton - Sporano
David Daniels - Countertenor
John Mark Ainsley - Tenor
Detlef Roth - Bass
RIAS Kammerchor
Hans-Christoph Rademann - choir rehearsals

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The Pure Tone

Sir Roger Norrington leads the Berlin Philharmonic and the RIAS Kammerchor through Bach's B-Minor Mass

by Nancy Chapple

When the Berlin Philharmonic played Bach's B-Minor Mass under Sir Roger Norrington last month, they'd gotten together a smaller than usual ensemble. The musicians sat in a full circle, and had apparently laid aside the typically lush symphonic sound you'd associate with a symphony orchestra.

Sir Roger Norrington

Most unusual from the visual side of things: Sir Roger Norrington sat during both the soloists' appearances and the orchestra, standing up only when the chorus sang. His conducting style was also unusual - he seemed not to feel the need (and no doubt rightly so with the Philharmonic) to beat the bar. Instead he moved around constantly, setting accents. The way his style appeared visually could be considered precious - or else eccentric and appropriate, depending on how you judge what you usually see at a "standard" conducting appearance.

Though we felt that the interpretation "worked", it was only upon studying the press material afterwards that it became clear why. Sir Roger (knighted in 1997) has made a point of harking back to a sound lost when American and then European orchestras started working with a continuous vibrato in the 1920's and 1930's, recreating a "warm, expressive, pure tone, without the 'glamourised' vibrato we are so used to." Norrington praises the orchestras he works with closely, particularly the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, for having embarked with him on this journey into new - or rather old - sounds. The sound characteristics he rejoices in having brought to life include transparent texture, richer and truer chording and more "serious and astringent" discords, and a renewed emphasis on phrasing.

The tempi he chose were quite moderate, not that it felt like the work was creeping along, but rather that it was restrained overall. Only the last movement of the Gloria, Cum Sancto Spiritu, took off.

Most impressive were - as so often - Albrecht Mayer on oboe and his colleague on solo flute, and the horn section was also in tune and precisely together in their entrances. No one soloist stood out particularly beyond the others, neither vocally nor in their mannerisms. The vocal soloists impressed most of all in the duets, which seemed to be jointly conceived. The RIAS Kammerchor, as always, were solid and impressive, with perfect entrances and a fine balance.

Surprisingly enough, the audience applauded only moderately at the end, though the evening had fit together and worked well.