Ensemble Pygmalion Plays the St. Matthew Passion


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.

 


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.


Schumann had Syphilis

I forget where, but I once read an convincing account from a medical person that explained that new sources revealed that Schumann's symptoms were consistent with the development of syphilis. Also what killed Nietzsche. It was an extremely common problem, but was hushed up after the deaths of these cultural heroes, leading to decades of fruitless speculation about alternative explanations for their sudden decline into insanity in the prime of life.


Bleg: Better Quality Audio on Youtube Downloads?

And now for something completely different!

This is a golden age of classical music concerts on the web. You can download hundreds of full-length videos of orchestral concerts on Youtube. I usually use aTube Catcher or a website to save them.

The only problem is that the sound is usually encoded at MP3 128Kbps. This is not really satisfactory. Does anyone know if there's a way to improve the sound? Some sort of advanced options box that can be checked? I have a hard time believing that someone would upload a classical music concert in high-definition video, but encode the audio at well-below the current industry standard.

Any help will be gratefully accepted!