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Bach and Beyond

Carmel Festival matches Bach to Mozart and Strauss with mixed results

By Philip Collins

WHETHER OR NOT it's consistent with the Carmel Bach Festival's mission statement to feature music by composers from outside the family tree, I for one am in favor of mixing things up a bit. Throw in some Biber or Beethoven, maybe even somebody still breathing.

The festival's orchestra and choral concert at Sunset Center Theater last Friday night (during the first weekend of three) was an extreme case in point. Bach's gorgeous, yet modestly scaled Cantata no. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, was like a curtain-raiser, warming up the crowd before Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings and Mozart's Requiem, both works of pointed emotional intent.

Still, Bach was the evening's star. To the point and extravagantly melodious, the Cantata no. 4 spans broad expressive territory in short order. Bach's reverent adaptation of Martin Luther's original hymn text and melody manifests Christ's Passion vividly, from its darkly despairing outset to a bursting finale.

Although one of the composer's earliest surviving church compositions, Christ lag in Todesbanden demonstrates extraordinary sophistication and craft. On pure harmonic terms, the manner in which the music shifts its countenances between shadings of dark and light is fascinating. Bach carries out the conceit of closing each movement on an upbeat--with an alleluia setting--through numerous intriguing modulations and chord successions of grandly moving capacities.

Music Director Bruno Weil elicited glowing work from his orchestra, chorus and soloists. Soprano Rosa Lamor-eaux, mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin, tenor Jörg Hering, and baritone Christòpheren Nomura were well matched and expert. Weil brought three of the four back later in the program to perform Mozart's Requiem (Nomura was replaced by Sanford Sylvan).

Lamoreaux and Robbin offered a lovely duet in the third movement of the Bach, Den Tod. Although Lamor-eaux overshadowed Robbin when singing in her brightest register, the balance was generally not a problem, and their close blends were lovely.

In his performance of Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn, Hering was striking. His incisive rhythm and diction combined with a brilliance of tone that glistened like armor, making a strong case on behalf of Christ's triumph over death. His contributions in the Requiem were equally appreciable.

The Carmel Bach Festival Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, was well prepared and emotionally triggered. Weil split the chorus in half and positioned the two ensembles on opposite sides of the stage. Bach's dazzling contrapuntal maneuvers were accented to dramatic effect.

Weil's determined conducting of the cantata kept the dramatic line taut through even the most reflective episodes. His driving style brought cohesion to the episodic form of the Bach, although Mozart's Requiem suffered under the conductor's no-nonsense tempo choices. The piece's grand structure thrives on a respiration of tempo contrasts, and Weil's brisk approach robbed the piece of its full impact. It was like putting a cap on it. Despite Sheryl Renk's handsome clarinet solo, it was clear from the first measures of the Introitus that it would be a less than remarkable Requiem. And so it turned out.

FRIDAY'S performance, apart from some fine moments, was frequently unsettled and at times even ragged. The Offertorium and Sanctus were particularly problematic, although the Agnus Dei's mysterious allure was at the height of its powers. With so fine an assemblage of musicians there were bound to be highlights, yet fewer than one expected. The allegro movements fared best, the Kyrie was fire breathing, and the Dies Irae sounded fierce as Wagner's Valkyries.

It was a delight to hear Sylvan, if in the briefest of his four appearances at the festival (he is also performing three evenings of Schubert lieder and is a soloist in Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Cantata BWV 201). Sylvan brought characteristic warmth and lucidity to his solos in the Tuba mirum and Benedictus.

Strauss' Metamorphosen proved a lamentable undertaking, as dreary in spirit as it is absent of revelations. The composer was 80 years old when he composed the work, and it sounds even older. Strauss had endured two world wars on the soil of his homeland and also had just witnessed the shelling of his two most beloved concert halls, the National Theater in Munich and the state opera house in Vienna.

Understandably, Metamorphosen is a sad piece of music, but much to one's surprise it doesn't metamorphose in the least. Despite the composer's philandering harmonic appetite and his aversion to functional proportions, Metamorphosen has little variety to it. Ultimately it is a plaint of resignation that might best have been left unwritten.

The Carmel Bach Festival runs through Aug. 10 at various venues in Carmel. The Bach, Strauss and Mozart program repeats Aug. 1 and 8 at 8pm at the Sunset Center Theater. Call 408/624-2046 for schedule details.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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