Passions and resurrection
St John’s, Smith Square
Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion
James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Michael George (Christus), Emma Bell (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Mark Milhofer (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass baritone)
Stephen Layton (conductor)
Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion
Julia Gooding (soprano), Sarah Connolly (alto), Mark Padmore (Evangelist/tenor), Peter Harvey (Christus/bass baritone)
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Gabrieli Consort and Players
George Frideric Handel: La resurrezione
Nancy Argenta (Angelo), Klaus Mertens (Lucifero), María Cristina Kiehr (Maddalena), Marcel Reijans (S. Giovanni), Marijana Mijanovic (Cleofe)
Jan Willem de Vriend (musical director)
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam
In England, performances of the Bach passions have become as much a fixture around Easter as Messiahs at Christmas. This year, when the world’s Christian denominations unusually all celebrate Easter on the same day, concerts in London were a week adrift. After a couple of timely passions on Good Friday, the Gabrieli Consort performed the St Matthew Passion on Easter Sunday, and the Combattimento Consort followed with La resurrezione on Low Sunday. As long as you didn’t go to church, it worked pretty well. These performances could be said to serve as an alternative secular festival: there are concerts for all tastes and persuasions, from non-professional enthusiasts for whom taking part is the main reward to highly polished, cutting edge even, professional performances for regular concertgoers.
Polyphony’s St John Passion, performed in German by the crack choir of about twenty singers and young soloists, was mainstream by today’s standards, a long way in volume and concision from the Bach Choir performances that used to be the high point of the choral year. James Gilchrist’s Evangelist was committed and musical, though very English sounding, and Michael George was resonant and authoritative as Christ. Robin Blaze sang the alto arias sweetly, with almost frothy ornamentation, again in strong contrast to the heavyweight contralto of tradition. Emma Bell, singing the soprano arias, actually had a bigger, less agile voice. The other two soloists seemed to be aiming at drama rather than precision. The core and high point of the performance was the wonderfully focused choir, Polyphony, who delivered the crowd choruses with horrible aggression and complete clarity.
More radical was the Gabrieli Consort’s one-to-a-part St Matthew Passion. Because the concert was part of a recording tour, a second quartet of soloists formed one of the choirs instead of the soloists. And, although Joshua Rifkind, the modern inventor of the convention, once directed a total of eight singers in the Matthew Passion in the Albert Hall, twelve might not have been enough to fill the Barbican Hall. In the event, everything was clear, lapidary even, far from the emotional juggernaut of a mass choir performance. In general, this was fine, although the sense that the choruses and chorales are collective, and in some way include "us" all as sinners and Christians, was missing. The soloists had much more dramatic impact, which partly undermined the point of having one voice to a part, though their performances were outstanding. Sarah Connolly combined pinpoint accuracy and profound expression in the alto solos, contrasting strikingly with the counter-tenors in the choruses. Peter Harvey managed to be a serene Christ and to sing the bass arias with great drama, and Mark Padmore delivered an exemplary, detached but compassionate Evangelist as well as singing the tenor arias in great style. One benefit of the chamber-scale forces was the ease with which the voice-and-instrument duets and smaller scale interplay emerged.
It is worth asking whether Bach’s passions can be performed with complete success outside of a communal or liturgical setting. They do not, after all, aim to present emotion for an aesthetically open audience to observe and perhaps share, as romantic works do. Instead they aim to express and amplify emotions that their target audience already share, guilt and grief at the suffering of Christ, and joy in redemption.
Interestingly, Handel’s Italian oratorio, La resurrezione, performed at the Barbican on the Sunday after Easter by the Amsterdam-based Combattimento Consort, doesn’t seems to raise this question. It was originally performed in the setting of a church festival, a Cardinal’s Easter bash, though not within the liturgy. But the libretto, and Handel’s music, convert the narrative of the resurrection into a freestanding sentimental drama with comic touches. There is a substantial flashback to Christ’s suffering at the crucifixion, but Mary Magdalene’s grief is that of an operatic heroine as much as that of a Christian. (Handel and Morrell did something similar in the very late oratorio Theodora, where the Christian love of a couple of martyrs is also good old romance.) And the needle match between Lucifer and the angel who announces the resurrection is close to Shakespearean. In addition, the convention of not representing Christ applies, as it does not in the liturgical passions, and there is more than a touch of Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are dead, or perhaps more appositely, Las meñinas in the way the minor characters have to carry the weight of the off-stage drama. It’s both baroque and entertaining.
The Combattimento Consort are another chamber-size ensemble, and they perform without a separate conductor. The instrumentalists also perform standing, which adds greatly to the sense of excitement and flexibility, although the effect is sometimes frantic rather than bravura. The soloists acted their roles, with minimal staging (mainly a certain amount of confrontation in the body language of Lucifer and the angel. Nancy Argenta has a voice that some love and some hate, but few could mistake. Her singing was energetic, and on a larger scale than the other soloists. She was a slightly mumsy angel who wasn‘t going to take any nonsense, and you felt Lucifer didn’t have a chance. Klaus Mertens was in any case a rather corporate devil, lacking the ham that is written into his music. María Cristina Kiehr was a luscious Magdalene, complete with long blond hair, and Marijana Mijanovic was a sympathetic Mary Cleophas, with a beautifully focussed mezzo voice. Marcel Reijans sang sweetly as St John, but was a bit short on dramatic force.