Tuesday 7 April 2015

Good Friday Passion at St George's Hanover Square

St George's Church, Hanover Square
Bach St Matthew Passion; Nathan Vale, George Humphreys, Anna Dennis, Alexandra Gibson, London Handel Orchestra, Choir of St George's, Lawrence Cummings; London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 03 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Richly dramatic, involving and moving - the Good Friday passion at St George's

I last attended the annual Good Friday performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion presented by the London Handel Festival at St. George's Church, Hanover Square some 20 years ago when, I think, Denys Darlow was still in charge and the interval was long enough for us to go to D.H. Evans on Regent Street for afternoon tea. We returned this Good Friday (3 April 2015) to hear Laurence Cummings conduct the London Handel Orchestra (leader Adrian Butterfield) and choir of St George's Church with Nathan Vale as the Evangelist, George Humphreys as Christus and soloists Anna Dennis and Alexandra Gibson. The passion is performed in the context of Vespers, as it was in Bach's day, so that we started with a hymn, had a hymn and a short sermon from Father Nicolas Stebbing from the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield and concluded with Jakob Handel's motet Ecce quomodo moritur and a final hymn.
Bach St Matthew Passion - Manuscript
Bach St Matthew Passion - Manuscript
Numbers were important to Bach, and his ideal version of the St Matthew Passion had everything in twos, two orchestras (including two organs) and two groups of singers with the main eight singers (four in each group) singing solos and chorus parts (so that the Evangelist sings the tenor one arias and the tenor one chorus parts, with Christus doing similar duty for bass one). This much we know from surviving parts, where it gets mistier is quite who sang the extra solo parts (First Maid, Second Maid etc). To keep the bilateral division, Bach did not have every single small part notated in whichever of the soloists was free and there exist free-standing solo parts. Some commentators say this means that Bach must have used more than one singer per part in the choruses, whilst others point out that Lutheran tradition was very much based on one per part and that most of Bach's instrumentalists were singers too. (How would a modern flute player feel if asked to double as Peter or Judas?). Unless we find one of Mrs Bach's frantic lists of singers and players, who was available and who was sick with lots of crossings out and jottings, to give us a clear idea then all must remain speculative. One to a part works well, but is very taxing.

At St George's, Lawrence Cummings opted for a practical and economic version, with two orchestras but just one organ (Bach did not always have two available when he performed the passion), tenor Nathan Vale singing Evangelist and all the tenor solos, George Humphreys singing Christus and all the bass solos, with Anna Dennis singing the soprano solos and Alexandra Gibson singing the alto solos (in Bach's day of course they would have both been boys). And the professional choir of St George's Church, numbering some 18 singers (a mixture of male and female altos) and providing the small solos in the recitative. It was sung in German.

We were sat in the balcony with only a limited view, but this view encompassed orchestra one, Cummings himself and most importantly the Christus of George Humphreys and Evangelist of Nathan Vale.

Vale won the Audience Prize and the First Prize in the Handel Singing Competition in 2006 and has since returned to the London Handel Festival on a number of occasions, in opera and in oratorio. This was the first occasion that I had heard him in a Bach passion. A number of adjectives come to mind when thinking of his performance as the Evangelist, vibrant, passionate, operatic, vivid, deeply felt, dramatic but taken as a group they make his performance out to be over the top and overly, which it wasn't. Vale clearly has a fine sense of dramatic pacing, and whilst his operatic experience coloured his performance it was always within the context of the passion so that this was vibrantly absorbing and strongly projected performance but it remained a passion, a moving one too. Vale has quite a rich, lyric voice and is hardly your classic English Evangelist but he still has the admirable freedom at the top in the recitatives and combined this with a way with words and a clarity of diction.  Vale was equally on form in the tenor solos, bringing out the vividness of Bach's word setting and his expressive depiction of the emotions expressed. Quite remarkably, despite the marathon of singing Evangelist and all the tenor solos, Vale was still singing lustily in the final hymn (as was George Humphreys).

All in all Nathan Vale's performance was very much at one with Cummings' lithe yet vibrant approach which kept things moving but was never rushed and gave us quite a richly vivid account of the work, but one which was moving too.

George Humphreys made a mellifluous and fluid Christus, dignified yet alert with Humphreys finding a profound still place for the most moving moments, and having a wonderfully strong sense of silence at the key point. This contrasted with his alert and characterful account of the solos, with flexible and even lines and a nicely free upper voice. I was particularly taken with his beautifully modulated, yet finely expressive account of the final solo, Ich will Jesum selbst begraben.

I have to admit that we could see neither of the female soloists, but this did not prevent us from appreciating their performance greatly. Both had voices which balanced those of the male soloists, vibrant, poised and technically adept, with operatic experience to back up their performance. Anna Dennis proved to have very fine passagework and lovely articulation, combined with shapely phrases along with an attention to words and a sense of line. In Aus Liebe all this combined to be very moving indeed.

At first I did worry that Alexandra Gibson might be a bit too light, but she relaxed into the role and proved as impressive and adept as Anna Dennis, with fine passagework, and some lovely moments. Erbarme dich was very expressive with a lovely sway to the rhythm, whilst Sehet, Jesus had die Hand was fluid and urgent. The two women combined in an expressive blend, for the glorious duet Ach, nun ist ein Jesus hin!

Throughout the soloists were complemented by some strong singing from the choir, with expansively expressive choruses and urgently dramatic turbae, as well as individual singers contributing some strong solo moments.

The orchestra was on top form, giving us a sophisticated yet lively account  of the score with the myriad solo moments all a pleasure to listen to.

Sitting up in our eyrie, with much of the 'action' invisible such was the fine singing and dramatic impact of the whole performance that we could not help but be strongly drawn in.

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