Saturday 24 October 2015

Passio - Arvo Pärt's St John Passion at Kings Place

"Arvo Pärt" by Woesinger - Arvo Part. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -
"Arvo Pärt" by Woesinger - Arvo Part.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.
Arvo Pärt's Passio or St John Passion ; Edward Grint, Thomas Hobbs, Maud Millar, David Allsopp, Joel Williams, William Gaunt, Endymion, choir of King's College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Mesmerising with a strong emotional undercurrent, Pärt's seminal passion setting

Arvo Pärt's Passio or St John Passion of 1989 is one of his seminal works, a large scale piece in his tintinnabuli style. Written for vocal ensemble, soloists, instrumental ensemble, choir and organ, it was brought to Kings Place as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped season with Stephen Cleobury conducting soloists Edward Grint (Jesus) and Thomas Hobbs (Pilate), a vocal quartet of Maud Millar, David Allsopp, Joel Williams and William Gaunt as Evangelist, members of Endymion, and the choir of King's College, Cambridge.

These were a lot of performers to fit into the performing space in Kings Place's Hall One. In fact, the choir of King's College, Cambridge were crammed into the balcony above the platform and lacking an organ, an electronic one was used to creditable effect played by one of the choir's organ scholars, Tom Etheridge and Richard Gowers.

Pärt uses his performers in separate groups and creates a distinctive tonal centre and sound quality for each. The choir's music, supported by organ, is vivid and strong in a style which will be familiar from choral work's such as Pärt's Magnificat Antiphons. By contrast the part of the Evangelist is sung by the vocal quartet supported, tintinnabuli style, by the instrumental ensemble. Pärt divides the Evangelist's part into sections (though this is not completely apparent in performance) and each section starts with a solo voice and then builds before reducing back down to a solo voice, the effect is mesmerising. In between these, we have the two solo voices, tenor soloist as Pilate and bass soloist as Jesus.

The basic melodic material is chant-like, with Pärt giving different groups rather different not values. Jesus has the lowest and longest notes, always accompanied by a drone whilst Pilate and Evangelist vary between unaccompanied chant and tintinnabulation.

Of course, there is a sense that in performance none of this matters. We should not have to worry about the composer's superstructure for a work and could almost feel that if it shows then something might be wrong. In the performance at Kings Place it was clear that the prime importance was telling the story. This was a vivid narration of the passion, presided over with confidence and clear direction by Stephen Cleobury. He ensured that the various disparate elements came together into a single, mesmerising and rather moving whole. Not everything was quite perfect, these were real performers working in real conditions with all the limitations that implies regarding rehearsal and such, and Pärt's music requires an absolute clarity of performance and technique. Overall this was something the performers gave us, but they also captured something of the real spirit of the piece too.

The part of the Evangelist, famously taken by the Hilliard Ensemble in the first recording of the work, is perhaps the biggest undertaking. A huge number of words to get over, the four vocal parts vary from chant-like melody to pure tintinnabulations accompanying the melody. (If you are unclear what I mean by tintinnabuli in this context, there is an excellent article on Wikipedia). This is not a highly expressive part, on the contrary, it is a controlled plainsong-like recitation and Maud Millar, David Allsopp, Joel Williams and William Gaunt brought a lovely sense of poise and control to their performance. They moved well as an ensemble whilst preserving a sense of individual voices, and the four had quite contrasting but blending voices. I was particularly taken by the timbral contrast between Millar's lovely, dark rich lower register and the pellucid quality of Allsopp's high notes.

As important is the role of the instrumental ensemble, whose players come in and out at various times, contributing to the overall texture. They must do so without any sense of hiatus, the instruments simply joining and leaving the texture. The performers from Endymion, Krysia Osostowicz (violin), Melinda Maxwell (oboe), Jane Salmon (cello) and Robin O'Neill (bassoon).

Edward Grint sang Jesus's role with strong and steady tones. It is a low role, with the notes all of rather long values, giving it a slightly dogged quality. Grint (whose Twitter tag is MisterGravel) brought a lovely dark, centred quality to Jesus's part providing a steady thread through the work. Thomas Hobbs as Pilate has far more scope for being somewhat unstable and more dramatic, making a nice contrast.

The choir, restricted to the turbae and taking the smaller dramatic roles, plus a final prayer, play a large role partly because their contributions often feel like interruptions, with the bright texture and loud volume contrasting with the rest of the performance. The Choir of King's College, Cambridge gave us this in spades with the boys voices on the top line giving the music a bright clarity.

There was a moment towards the end, when Jesus is on the cross, when Pärt reduces the texture right down with only a single voice taking the Evangelist, and Jesus's slow, steady recitation of the Last Words. It might have fallen flat, but the fine technical quality of this performance combined with the way the performers brought out the emotional undercurrent of the work made it truly mesmerising. Hearing it in Kings Place rather than a larger acoustic gave the sound greater clarity and brought a lovely concentrated intensity to the whole.

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