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Bach Musica: Mozart, Beethoven and Altnickol - review

Bach Musica: Mozart, Beethoven and Altnickol - review

Bring on the zombie apocalypse.

Bach Musica, conducted by Rita Paczian
June 8, 2014, Auckland Town Hall

There are many things you do not want to be thinking as a member of a concert audience. “Someone give me an ipod” is never a good sign. But zombie incursion fantasies? These have not previously been an issue for me. The composers were all dead, of course, but there was no good reason for them to sound that way.

Mortality was probably on my mind because of the evening’s big drawcard, the Mozart Requiem: his unfinished final masterpiece, the death mass he wrote while he was dying. Bach Musica were performing it as the capstone of an intriguingly designed programme, opening with an obscure work not previously performed in New Zealand, Johann Altnickol’s Mass in D Minor, and moving to the Mozart by way of the least well known of Beethoven’s extremely well known piano concertos.

From the unknown to the fairly familiar to a ubiquitous masterwork: that’s a decent trajectory for a concert. Except that I spent the Altnickol wishing for zombies and the Beethoven wondering if they’d already arrived, and were in fact all sitting on the stage, made up to look lively but playing like the corpses they secretly were.

The Altnickol is a perfectly pleasant little piece, a B-side offering from someone who never had an A-side. It’s the kind of music you should play only if you can get electricity into every semi-quaver. Rita Paczian, Bach Musica’s ambitious and capable music director, gave it a crisply well defined rhythmic shape, but her soloists were not strong-voiced, her strings were hitting their notes only by and large, and her chorus, by far Bach Musica’s greatest asset, were not singing at their best.

For the Beethoven First Piano Concerto, the chorus was not singing at all. Young Auckland pianist Eddie Giffney made a competent if slightly subdued soloist, and the orchestra was not terrible, though still suffering from the blurred string sound of players who are very nearly in tune. The work is not a short one. I sat there thinking about the rule that classical concerts should feature three pieces, and wondering if it was written down in a secret musician’s statute somewhere, and if this statute was by any chance flammable.

The great bane of classical music is the form of rigor mortis known as boredom. This was made clearest to me when we got to the Mozart and the chorus blasted the roof off the building. We were abruptly out in the fresh air. The contrast was sublime, but it was also an indictment of the concert’s entire first half.

A few scribbled notes: “Real authority to chorus in the Kyrie”. “Extremity of the music seems to have woken everyone up”. “Orchestra gains a lot, alas, from being semi-submerged by chorus”. “Who is that bass soloist?” (He was Joel Amosa, and his deep rich voice could fill larger spaces than the Town Hall). “Violins plangent and potent in the Lacrimosa!” This was the music I’d come out for, performed with enough passion that the rough edges were neither here nor there. Mozart banishes zombies from the grave. Though in fact, I’m not convinced the man is dead.

Music