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Concert Review: Bach Musica’s Christmas Box Of Classical Delights!

Where: Auckland Town Hall, NZ
When: 02 Dec 2018
By: Clare Martin

Bach Musica delivered a veritable box of Christmas bon-bons last Sunday night at Auckland’s Town Hall. At the centre of the selection was an excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in an evening that had something for everyone.

The evening opened with J S Bach’sSuite No.3 in D major with Yanghe Yuon first violin leading the orchestra with great warmth and articulation under Rita Paczian’s baton. However the Ouverture sounded a little small in a hall as grand as the Auckland Town Hall and the excellent brass couldn’t really be the blazing heralds that Bach might have intended. However in the second section, the Air arrived with such loving tones that the audience melted… here is how the Air section should always be played, and don’t accept messed around versions, only this kind of authenticity will do. Paczian coaxed sweetness from the strings at a perfect tempo. Even though this orchestra was playing Bach at a modern concert pitch on modern instruments, it still had the light touch and elegance of a baroque sound. 

The evening then scooted onwards a couple of hundred years to a real Christmas morsel, Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noël, better known to most of us as O Holy Night. Apparently one of the most requested carols and at the top of the pops for carols for decades… it is unapologetically romantic. To sing the solo wasn’t the usual soprano, instead special guest artist tenor Simon O’Neill swept onstage to deliver a warm rendition of the song.

In the next Christmas offering, O’Neill really shone as Adestes Fideles… set in a higher range well suited to his voice and he filled the town hall with his ringing and triumphant tones. Here the real timbre of O’Neill’s voice came to the fore with a ring (or squillo as it’s known in the trade) that filled the Town Hall. A nice setting of the carol had been chosen… an arrangement by twentieth-century composer and arranger Giancarlo Chiaramello. As a piece, it had some flavours of  the romantic and classical to become a good follow-on from the Bach and Adam.

You could say O’Neill’s first two songs served as warm-ups for the heart of the evening and the tenor’s absolute trump card – Wagner’s Parsifal. Not only was the audience treated to one excellent Wagnerian singer, but O’Neill was joined on stage by another fine Wagnerian singer, bass Martin Snell. We don’t hear enough on these shores of either singer, meantime they are singing on major opera stages around the world. O’Neill has sung the role of Parsifal for Vienna State Opera and in Wagner’s own theatre in Bayreuth, Germany. Snell too has sung around Europe and many times in Bayreuth. Both soloists are New Zealand born and, in the early stages, NZ trained singers. How fortunate to have these world class singers return to NZ to sing and in part we have Bach Musica to thank for that.

At this point, Paczian showed her dazzling ability with orchestra… for not only did she switch into Wagner in the middle of the programme… but she had undertaken her own arrangement of this scene in order to suit the smaller band. No mean feat on either score. She drew such warmth and colour from the orchestra, proving that a small instrumental force can give due gravitas and depth to Wagner, normally performed with large orchestral numbers.

The scene opened with Snell’s beautiful rich bass unfolding magnificently and leading the way through the initial part of the Good Friday scene. Snell’s warm tones delivered the German text with a clarity that can only come from living in Europe and not only being fluent, but deeply conversant with the language. He fit the role of Gurnemanz like a glove, perhaps singing the whole role is something for the future. Here was mastery of singing in the hands of these hugely experienced singers… the scene had a natural warmth with the paternal air from Snell’s Gurnemanz and the ringing, impassioned response from O’Neill’s Parsifal. Paczian gave both singers respectful space to fill the stage which they duly took with great dignity and command. There was some beautiful virtuosic phrasing too in the orchestra, notably exquisite playing from oboist Alison Dunlop. A very real heart to the programme. 

After an interval, there was one final offering… Charles Gounod’s Petite Messe Solenelle. Not a composition that really won me over but it was a nice opportunity to hear from soprano Alexandra Gandionco and tenor Manase Latu, as well as more from Snell. The first Kyrie section served to profile the excellent choir with a warmth and flexibility you don’t hear often from choirs. The three soloists also had a beautiful trio with which to start. Gounod can at times be a little saccharine for my taste but with attractive performing, the writing came over as more convincing. There were moments of beauty with the engaging tones of soprano Gandionco and tenor Latu’s expressive phrases in the plaintive Miserere and Crucifixus sections.

The Credo section seemed a little banal to my ears with unison voicing between choir and brass. But, all was forgiven in the instrumental Offertory with Paczian’s superb ability to create a sublime pianissimo. As a work the Messe Solenelle doesn’t feature many juicy arias aside from the tenor’s Sanctus in which Paczian led the orchestra sensitively to allow Latu’s charming light notes to be heard.

There is no need to pause for thought if you want to try a classical concert… next time Bach Musica is performing, go! Whether you’re a Wagner fan or not… or don’t know a Gounod from a body part… here is vocal and instrumental playing of New Zealand at it’s finest under one of the finest conductors. Try and you will not be disappointed.