Prom 43: Late night Pärt
Royal Albert Hall
Arvo Pärt: Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem
Andrew Kennedy (Pilate), Brindley Sherratt (Jesus), Endymion, BBC Singers, Iain Farrington (organ), David Hill (conductor)
B. Sherratt (© Sussie Ahlburg)
Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me." Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.
Large portions of the text - those narrating the unfolding events - rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field. However, her companions David Allsopp (countertenor), Stephen Jeffes (tenor), and Stephen Charlesworth (baritone) also showed great understanding of the music, and the quartet as a whole was crisp, clear, and finely-balanced. Counterbalancing the four voices were four instruments: violin, cello, oboe and bassoon (courtesy of 20th century specialists Endymion), weaving smoothly in and out of the voices to give a dimension of depth to the auditory geometric structures being created.
I cannot think of anyone I would rather hear in the role of Jesus than Brindley Sherratt. Although highly versatile in terms of operatic roles, he has a gift (which many fine singers lack) for the more static, undemonstrative and calm ones, filling stillness with great reserves of potential energy. Jesus’s music moves at a much slower pace than all the other characters, is always deep-pitched and accompanied by organ alone, so it was simply a joy to sit back and hear Sherratt's rich, dark tones rolling around the Albert Hall with no distractions. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the other solo role, Pilate. Andrew Kennedy has a pleasant tenor voice, but his style of singing was not appropriate for this music. While all the other singers used very little vibrato, employing the effect sparingly on phrase-ending cadences, his was broad and ever-present. Additionally, to get the full effect of Pärt’s auditory geometry, rhythm as well as pitch requires absolute accuracy, and Kennedy's over-phrasing and rubato jarred with the surrounding musical structure.
Lastly, the BBC Singers were on good form providing the Chorus to the drama, pensive in the Exordium, terrifying when baying for execution, and exultant in the final Amen. From the organisers of the BBC Proms series, this was a particularly effective piece of programming for the special ambiance of a late night concert.