Wednesday 12 April 2017

Thoughtful St Matthew Passion: Ian Bostridge and Armonico Consort

Armonico Consort
Bach St Matthew Passion; Ian Bostridge, Andrew Davies, Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, Christopher Monks; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 5 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Collegiate music making and committed performance

The Bach passion season is in full swing, and my one visit this year was to hear Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, conductor Christopher Monks at St John’s Smith Square on 5 April 2017 in Bach's St Matthew Passion. Andrew Davies was Christus, and Ian Bostridge was the Evangelist and no doubt provided some of the marketing power for what must have been a sold-out performance.

Apart from the Christus, Andrew Davies, conductor Christopher Monks drew the soloists from the Consort. One the one hand, this meant the singers had varying levels of experience, but on the other hand, it made for a very collegiate style that must have been close to Bach’s own circumstances in Leipzig. So, in that respect, anyone looking for an authentic performance would have found it here. The band played in a similar style – collaboratively and mostly lacking in egos.

For me the best example of this was “Erbarme dich” – between them the counter tenor Joseph Bolger and violinist Miles Golding made time stand still. A few tears were shed and sniffs heard in and around Row M. The choruses were disciplined, but flexible – very alive and responsive, their dynamic range providing a dramatic contrast to the solid lower strings. There were some attention-grabbing pianissimi that burst into a great shout for the angry crowd scenes, and a wonderful swooning in the final chorus. This to me is what makes for intelligent music making. It is true, this wasn’t the most polished, most even performance, but it had heart.
The performance also played to the much-repeated idea that the passions were the operas Bach didn’t get a chance to write. He broke the rules of his Leipzig contract which stated “Music composed for the church is not to be too long and must never have the character of an opera”.

It seemed that everyone on the platform was tuned into the words – something I never take for granted in a performance of anything. The soloists sang the recitatives as though we were hearing them for the first time, breathy “h” on “Herz”. Peter’s denial scene had us all on the edge of our seats (this was James Geidt). Bostridge, of course, made every utterance mean something and – I think – managed to convince the audience they were fluent in German. Just as well, because the glossy programme with multicoloured text and extensive notes (by Peter Parfitt) was illegible in the dark.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

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