Ensemble Pygmalion Plays the St. Matthew Passion

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La Passion selon St Matthieu de Bach par Raphaël Pichon

One of my first Bach recordings, and one which I still have, is the B Minor Mass performed by Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble. Rifkin insisted that Bach's choral works were intended to be sung with one singer to a part. The result was light, feathery, transparent. Every other performance I'd hear sounded clogged and soupy by comparison. But haters still reject Rifkin's purism. They insist that although Bach only had limited space and personnel at his disposal, he would probably have welcomed greater forces to perform his choral masterworks, and composed them with this aspiration in mind. And I have to admit, Rifkin's recording often sounds a bit underpowered.

And now Ensemble Pygmalion has come along, a new original-instruments baroque ensemble from France. I had the good fortune to see them live last Thursday in the Cologne Philharmonic, performing the St. Matthew Passion. And a stellar performance it was. The strings sounded crisp and robust for historical instruments, with secure intonation. The chorus was modest — about 20 singers in all, many of whom peeled off from the group to come to the fore and sing arias. The balance was ideal: Just enough singers to provide a real bite to the choral interjections, but not so many as to obscure contrapuntal lines. The instrumental soloists were all solid, especially the viola da gamba player, who sawed out an electrifying accompaniment. The tempi were crisp but not hasty, pretty much perfectly judged. And the Evangelist was nothing short of stunning, declaiming with absolute conviction.

You can judge for yourself: Directly after performing in Cologne, they did the St. Matthew in Versailles, and French TV has made it available to all on the web.

Trigger warning: I'm about to criticize Bach. Don't clutch your pearls. In the immortal words of Primus, they can't all be zingers. And the St. Matthew, if you ask me, ain't no zinger, at least not all the way through. The second half especially features some long and, if you ask me, pretty tedious arias. Many of the most ingenious ideas — budding choral fugues, appealing melodies in the obbligato to the Evangelist's recitative — are cut short by the demands of the text or of forward plot motion before they can really develop. And then comes another seemingly 14-minute setting of 5 lines of charming but mediocre poetry by Picador.

Come on, admit it: You've checked your watch one hour into Part II of the St. Matthew. But not when Pygmalion sings it. The musicianship invested even the tedious stretches with enough verve and energy to keep me awake. And made the many good bits sublime. Their recording of the short masses by Bach is stellar, go buy it now. And if they perform anywhere near you, don't miss them.

 

Marcel Broodthaer’s Poetry in English

Marcel Broodthaers was a poet before he was an artist, and two of his early collections have now been translated:

What comes across insistently in both collections is Broodthaers’s attraction to thresholds, to points of transition that equally signify ends and beginnings. He makes reference to voyages undertaken and to midday, daybreak, and other such points of passage in our experience of time. Midnight ends not in darkness but at dawn, as its concluding poem “The Morning” closes with a gift of visionary illumination: “A light filters through to me, a / light of the crests of grasses.” One of the more moving poems in the Siglio volume is simply called “Final Poem,” coming at the end of My Ogre Book, suggesting that the book’s particular journey has reached a kind of terminus:

The streets enter from all sides. Blue flies begin to circle. They cast their eyes down to the pavement. They cry out :

That it is morning

That it is war

That life is costly

That it doesn’t fail to run too fast

That a storm has come quick

That it isn’t surprising

And that one has said it well.

Telescoped here is a sense both of distilled experience and of pride: the poet has made it through, at a cost. But on the opposing page, as a kind of envoi, we’re told that the storm has subsided and “That which had been lightning / became the zigzag of my steps”—the finality of the book’s last poem has now been transmuted into new, animated movement, leading to an unknown beyond.

There’s a restlessness on display in Broodthaers’s poetry that reveals something integral about what he achieved through his career’s varied projects. The poems seem to come from a radically different place than the later visual and conceptual work, but what unites all of it is an emphasis on renewal, reinvention, moving onward in the wake of what one has brought to completion.

Quote of the Day: Maeterlinck on Utterance

“In some strange way we devalue things as soon as we give utterance to them. We believe we have dived to the uttermost depths of the abyss, and yet when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pallid fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it came. We think we have discovered a hoard of wonderful treasure-trove, yet when we emerge again into the light of day we see that all we have brought back with us is false stones and chips of glass. But for all this, the treasure goes on glimmering in the darkness, unchanged.”

Maeterlinck (epigraph to Musil's Confusions of Young Törless, pdf)

Bach Mass in B Minor with Daniel Reuss & Capella Amsterdam

From the Avotros Klassiek YouTube channel, this HD recording of a complete live performance of the Mass in B Minor on period instruments with the Capella Amsterdam:

Capella Amsterdam also features in Frans Brüggen's version (accompanied by the Orchestra of the 18th century), which garnered a 10/10 review from ClassicsToday:

Brüggen is a long-time master of Baroque performance, and here he shows that mastery at every level, from the perfectly judged tempos to the dynamic choral movements, sensitively shaped arias, rich textural detail, and overall sense of balance between orchestra and chorus, chorus and solo or duetto movements, and orchestra with whatever configuration of vocal forces. The result is a grandly-scaled performance that feels neither long nor labored–and the contributions by all concerned–soloists, choir, and orchestra–are first-rate. Large works such as this, containing so many variables, usually have one or more weak links–an inadequate soloist or two, undernourished orchestral playing, disappointing sound–but no apologies are necessary here. This recording, from a concert performance in Warsaw, Poland in 2009, easily tops my list and reassures me that not only do I not have to accept a flawed performance of this masterpiece (check out the other reviews in our archive), but I–and we–can happily reject any notion of bare-bones Bach in favor of a conception that fully realizes the spiritual power and interpretive possibilities inherent in this much-discussed and debated score.

The orchestra in this video, Il Gardellino, isn't quite as formidable as the OEC, but they're still very fine. And the whole thing is available free to anyone in the world. Internet, I ♥ you.

Georg Friedrich Haas and His ‘Perverted Negress’

The New York Time profiles Haas, an Austrian composer (and an interesting one), and his wife, Mollena Williams-Haas, a/k/a The Perverted Negress:

Waking-Dreams

And now to the article, which I'm just going to leave here:

The Austrian-born Mr. Haas, 62, a music professor at Columbia University since 2013, has recently been increasingly open about the unusual nature of his marriage, which he says has dramatically improved his productivity and reshaped his artistic outlook. He will be the subject of a two-concert American Immersion series on Wednesday and Friday presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, which includes the American premiere of his “I can’t breathe,” a dirgelike solo trumpet memorial to Eric Garner.

In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has “come out,” as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up, both because Ms. Williams-Haas’s sexual interests are widely known (her blog, The Perverted Negress, is not shy about kink and bondage) and because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did.

The fundamental feature of their relationship is not obviously sexual, Mr. Haas and Ms. Williams-Haas, 46, said in an interview at their airy apartment near Columbia, with expansive views of the Hudson River. “It’s not caning,” he said. “It’s the fact that I need someone who is with me when I work.”

Their marriage can seem, in this regard, distinctly old-fashioned, and not in a Marquis de Sade way. While the terms they negotiated at the start of their relationship do not prevent her from pursuing her own professional and personal life, Ms. Williams-Haas devotes much of her time to supporting the work of a man — “Herr Meister,” she has nicknamed him — for whom a “good day” is one in which he composes for 14 or 15 hours.

That ’70s Feeling: Jörg Immendorff’s Revolutionary Struggle

MAO — Materialien zur Analyse von Opposition (Materials for Analysis of the Opposition) is an online archive (g) of documents from the heyday of German Maoism. It collects flyers, magazines, manifestos, artwork, banners and other ephemera from the early- to mid-1970s, when some factions on the German left became enthusiastic adherents of Chairman Mao thought. The website is a bit hard to navigate, but you can tell it's a labor of love and probably dates from the 1990s, so gratitude is in order.

I stumbled on an interesting document, a review of a book by Jörg Immendorff. First, a bit of background. Immendorff was a Düsseldorf-based artist famous enough to have an English Wikipedia entry. He was a fixture of the Düsseldorf culture scene and a teacher at the Kunstakademie until his death from ALS in 2008. More on him later.

The book the Maoists review is entitled (my trans.): 'Here and Now: Do What Must Be Done. Jörg Immendorf. Materials for a Discussion: Art in Political Struggle. Whose Side Are You On, Culture-Creator?' Despite this engaging title, the book doesn't seem to have sold many copies and is now rare. This is the cover (from this antiquarian website (g) where you can buy the book for €120):  

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I'm sure this painting is by Immendorff himself. It isn't Hockney/Currin-esque ironically self-aware textureless or 'bad' painting. It's just clumsy. This is what most Immendorffs look like. If you're getting the idea that I don't dig him, you're right-on, man. I've always found his stuff unconvincing: either crowded and ugly, or flat and cliched.

But what about his political views? Like so many German lefty/culture types, Immendorff jumped onto the bandwagon of Maoism in the early 1970s. This book is obviously from that period.

A review of the book and the associated exhibition can be found in this 1973 agitprop flyer (g) from the Revolutionary Artists' Group, found on the archive website. Let me apologize in advance for the layout of this page from a self-proclaimed 'Artists' group'. Clearly, these Revolutionary Artists are mostly untrained, given what's on display in most of the pamphlet. Yet no matter how limited your means are, there's no excuse for pages clogged with unreadable clots of text like the one below. Apparently columns are tools of the bourgeoisie.

But let's forge ahead anyway. The handwritten title reads: "Progress at the anti-imperialist Culture Front!" and begins: "A book has just appeared from Comrade Jörg Immendorff, who is active in the Group of Revolutionary Artists — Ruhr Struggle." 

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The review, misspelling Immendorff's name, reports breathlessly that he has decided 'to consciously place his artistic activity in the service of the people and the revolutionary proletariat'.

The article then reports on the exhibition accompanying the book, which was held in the Westphalian Artist's League in Münster. Both the exhibition and the book, the review states, 'show the attitude of a partisan artist who has developed away from bourgeois philistinism towards cultural creation marked by class struggle. Both (the exhibition and the book) are a declaration of war on the brainless bourgeois avant-garde…which have learned nothing from the anti-imperialist movement of 1968.'

During the entire exhibition, young members of the 'anti-imperialist league' staffed a book-table with 'revolutionary writings' inside the museum.

The exhibition also featured a roundtable discussion with members of the Communist Students' Association, the Anti-Imperialist League, the Group of Revolutionary Artists, and Immendorff. Immendorff admitted his works were not yet fully 'revolutionary', given their incompleteness and flaws, and thus that he sought 'discussion and critique' from the audience.

One critique focused on Immendorff's portraits of 'Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung', which were based on the works of Chinese 'people's artists'. One cannot simply import the stylistic devices of the Chinese revolutionary artists' Social Realism into German conditions, because the international class struggle is always defined by the particular historical, social, etc. etc. — you get the picture. 

Immendorff's later history is well-known to all Germans. He continued producing masterpieces of socialist-realist artwork in the service of the international proletariat, donating every penny of profit to Third World liberation movements. He lived in a humble apartment in the working-class section of Düsseldorf, volunteering much of his time teaching painting to Turkish immigrant children. Even those who disagreed with his political views couldn't help admiring the depth of his commitment to social justice.

Oh wait, wrong Immendorff. While no doubt continuing to mouth the occasional revolutionary slogan, he went on to amass a fortune of between 15 and 18 million Euros (g) at the time of his death. He described his own philosophy of life as 'selfishness'. Late in life, he married a Romanian ingenue 30 years his junior (former student) and rechristened her Oda (after a Germanic god), last name Jaune. The French word for yellow, Immendorff's favorite color. Not hers.

But that didn't stop Immendorff from regularly renting luxury hotel rooms, to which he would invite groups of up to 15 prostitutes. There, he held hours-long cocaine orgies with them costing sums in the five-figure range. He was caught white-handed during one of these, so to speak, and eventually sentenced to 11 months' probation. At the time of this coke and champagne orgy, his wife Oda was in an advanced state of pregnancy. As a result of the prosecution, Immendorff nearly lost his comfortable civil-servant position as a teacher at the Düsseldorf art academy — run by the state he no doubt routinely claimed to despise.

Just before he died, he changed his will to try to bestow upon the long-suffering Oda his entire fortune. This came as rather a disappointment to Immendorff's illegitimate son Jean-Louis, born in 1999. Immendorf ignored the letters and pictures his son sent him during his life, and took no interest in him. Fortunately, German law guaranteed the son an 1/8 of Immendorff's inheritance, no matter what Immendorff tried to arrange.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another object lesson in why nobody should pay the slightest attention to the political opinions artists claim to have.

Especially, it must be said, German ones.