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Passion and Charm

Royal Albert Hall
08/23/1998 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach : St Matthew Passion
Ian Bostridge (Evangelist), Franz-Joseph Selig (Christ), Sibylla Rubens (soprano), Andreas Scholl (alto), Werner Gëaut;ra (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (bass)
Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino, Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

The Proms have seen a range of Matthew Passions, from 'English' performancs with massed choirs to Joshua Rifkind's performance in 1994 with total vocal forces of eight, which was rough-hewn and exhausting, but often exciting. Philippe Herreweghe's small-scale performance with original instruments could be called middle-of-the-road.

This was definitely a concert performance, rather than a liturgical one. It lacked a sense of the sublime, but brought out the detail and suprising exuberance of the music. There were times, for example, the almost operettaish lightness of the alto recitative, Ach, Golgotha and the following aria with chorus, when it wasn't clear whether Bach used musical techniques which have since acquired other associations, or whether Herreweghe was lightening up too far.

But, in general, the charm of the intrumental performances (in particular) suggested spiritual uplift and engagement. And the dramatic moments were powerful in contrast. Sind Blitzer, sind Donner really sounded like a force of nature, though sung by a smallish choir. Both orchestra and choir were impeccable as ensembles. There was some fine playing from the solists in the orchestra, especially the first orchestra oboes, the continuo gamba and the leader of the first orchestra, Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen. They made the chorales, in particular the much repeated 'Passion chorale' varied and interesting.

The solists were a premium selection. Andreas Scholl seems made to sing this music, delivering the agility and lightness of the music in a way which reminds you that it wasn't written for Kathleen Ferrier, but also getting over its expressive force. Ian Bostridge is a natural Bach Evangelist, conveying understanding of every word, though tonight he seems just a little bit academic about it. Sibylla Rubens was accurate and elegant, with a fine voice of the right weight, substantial but not big or heavy. The tenor Werner Gëaut;ra was also fine.

Dietrich Henschel seemed less at home in the music than the other singers. He started his first aria in a plodding staccato, and only intermittently loosed up. In spite of his blond curls, he's a little remniscent of Fisher-Diskau, which is a good thing in general but not perhaps for historically informed performance of Bach. The appropriately named Franz-Joseph Selig was not particularly expressive as Christ, though he has a fine German bass voice, with the right liturgical sound for the music.

H.E. Elsom



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