Saturday 30 March 2019

Keeping it fresh: conductor David Hill on the challenges of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion annually with the Bach Choir

David Hill and the Bach Choir
David Hill and the Bach Choir
The Bach Choir performed its first St Matthew Passion 125 years ago and its tradition of an annual performance in English continues under its present musical director David Hill (who took over from Sir David Willcocks in 1998). This year David conducts the St Matthew Passion with the Bach Choir, Florilegium and soloists James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Sophie Bevan, Hilary Summers, Ed Lyon and Neal Davies at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 7 April 2019 (Passion Sunday). I recently met up with David to talk about performing Bach, how he keeps the music fresh each year, the importance of singing in the vernacular and more. First of all, I was interested to know how many performances of the work David had conducted?

David Hill
David Hill
He suggests around 50 performances, and each time it comes out different, which is something he likes. The players vary between performances, which is particularly important in the solo arias, as do the soloists and each person brings their own aspect. This is very true of the Evangelist, whom David describes as the person who calibrates the work, as an individual singer's pace and style can vary.

David is very happy with this sort of flexibility, and he is not the type of conductor to insist his way is the only way.

But, doing the work each year with the choir, David feels the need to keep the performance fresh so each time he encourages the singers of the Bach Choir to consider another aspect of the piece. This might involve thinking about how to make the meaning of the chorales come over or, as this year, looking at the drama of the work and making sure the singers are fully involved in it.

And he hopes that audience members come out thinking that there was something different about the performance this year. He takes an evolutionary approach to other aspects of the music such as speed. Otherwise, he points out, it would be too easy to dust off the same old routine performance each year.

David attended Sir David Willcocks' final St Matthew Passion with the choir in 1998, and when he took over he brought in a new translation by the tenor (and biographer) Neil Jenkins which the choir still uses. No translation can answer all the questions in such a big piece, but David feels that it is a strong piece of work. Though Jenkins' translation has been adjusted over the years, it is still very much his. And it is not unknown for soloists with strong views to adjust the placement of text, something David is comfortable with if done for genuinely artistic reasons.

The translation versus original debate is one which, now, David points out extends it only to opera and oratorio but to lieder. There is an immediacy and vividness to hearing a work sung in a beautifully crafted English translation. And the audience does not need to be looking at its programme text all the time if the singers' diction is clear.

The Bach Choir
The Bach Choir
Some years ago David and the Bach Choir were touring in Germany and were due to perform in Eisenach (Bach's birth place) and had prepared some of the chorales in German (the choir has given performances in German, usually abroad, and the singers loved doing it). In Eisenach the Kapellmeister wanted them to sing in English, arguing that Bach had written the work to be sung in the vernacular and in English it would mean more to the singers.

Nowadays soloists are perfectly comfortable singing the solos in either English or German, and even back to Sir David Willcocks' day singers as distinguished as Sir Robert Tear and Dame Janet Baker were happy to perform in English with the Bach Choir. David thinks that it is important to be mindful of the quality of the language being used, and though not a literal translation the one they use has the essential ingredients of meaning.

Scholarship suggests that Bach would have performed the St Matthew Passion with a small group of singers, but David points out that using an ensemble of 18 singers in the Royal Festival Hall would create a performance too small for the venue size, so you need to be pragmatic. And he is very complimentary about the singers of the Bach Choir's ability to move in step at speed, describing them as a chamber choir on steroids. So David is able to keep the tempi lithe and have timings similar to those you would get in a smaller performance. And it is also exciting in the more dramatic choruses to have such numbers, reflecting the real sense of a crowd antagonising Jesus, which makes the piece work dramatically.

David feels that there is a cultural difference here too, Bach never worked with massed forces, it wasn't something that was done in Germany at the time, but in 18th century London Handel did; the UK was famous for assembling large-scale performances and David feels that this is something that Handel enjoyed. The music production of the time reflects this as well, Bach's music was generally copied out at home, whereas Handel's choral works used London's significant copying and publishing industry.

David Hill conducting the Bach Choir
David Hill conducting the Bach Choir
But David still loves smaller scale performances, and as conductor of the Yale Schola Cantorum in the USA he is able to work on this scale as well. And he will be conducting the St Matthew Passion in Sydney, Australia with the National Youth Choir of Australia. And RSCM course is happening at the same time so the singers from the course will join in the chorales, with is yet another way of doing the work!

Whilst David does not much experiment with different versions of the St Matthew Passion, there is one which he would like to do, that created by Mendelssohn for the famous revival of the work in 1829. There is also a version of the St John Passion created by Robert Schumann and as the Mendelssohn/Bach St Matthew Passion is heavily cut it would be perfectly possible to perform both works in a single day, something that David is keen to experience. Schumann did not trim the St John Passion but he added clarinets and basset horns, as well as a forte piano part which would have placed his wife Clara centre stage. Schumann also adjusted some of Bach's harmonies to make them more 19th century.

The first time David conducted the St Matthew Passion was at Winchester Cathedral, where he was Master of the Music, with the Waynflete Singers and the Winchester Cathedral Choir with William Kendall as the Evangelist, plus Roy Goodman and the Brandenburg Consort. The performance was in German, under his predecessor Martin Neary the cathedral had developed a tradition of performing the work in German.

David Hill
David Hill
Looking ahead, David and the Bach Choir will be recording Herbert Howells Missa Sabrinensis for Hyperion. Howells wrote the mass for the Three Choirs Festival in 1954 and it has only one previous recording with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra. The work has a reputation for its difficulty, but it seems that Rozhdestvensky and his forces also were struggling with the lack of clarity in the performing material. David's recording will complete his sequence of recordings of large-scale Howells works such as the Stabat Mater and Sir Patrick Spens. He admits that the work is enormously difficult for soloists, choir and orchestra, and he is grateful to the Herbert Howells Trust for its support in making the recording, and to Novello who have reset the score and parts, thus providing the needed clarity in the performing material. David has been through the score and has been adjusting the dynamics which he feels were too generous and as they will be rehearsing it with the orchestra before they go into the studio, they can be forensiv in examining the work. There will not be a live performance, alas, as the economics simply do not work.

Coming up in the Bach Choir's 2019/20 season is a new piece by Roxanna Panufnik Four Choral Season which is premiered in October at the Royal Festival Hall. And David describes is at a terrific piece. The choir has quite a track record in commissioning new music with pieces by Jonathan Dove, John Taverner and Paul Patterson, not to mention Bob Chilcott's The Angry Planet, 45 minutes of very demanding unaccompanied music which the choir performed at the BBC Proms [see my review of the recording].

Also next season, in March 2020, David's two conducting hats (the Bach Choir and the Yale Schola Cantorum) will come together when 120 singers from the Bach Choir will join the Yale Schola Cantorum for a USA tour with the Yale Philharmonia (made up of graduates of the Yale School of Music) in a programme of British music including Walton's Belshazzar's Feast which is rarely performed in the USA.

Sunday 7 April 2019 - Bach - St Matthew Passion: The Bach Choir, Florilegium, James Gilchrist, Matthew Rose, Sophie Bevan, Hilary Summers, Ed Lyon, Neal Davies, David Hill - Royal Festival Hall - further information from Southbank Centre website.

Full details of the The Bach Choir's performances from the choir's website.

On disc:
Bach - St Matthew Passion: The Bach Choir, Thames Chamber Orchestra, Sir David Willcocks - available online 
Herbert Howells - Stabat Mater: The Bach Choir,  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill; Naxos - available online
Herbert Howells - Sir Patrick Spens: The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill; Naxos - available online 
Herbert Howells - Hymnus Paradisi: The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill; Naxos - available online
George Dyson -  Choral Symphony: The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill; Naxos - available online
Frederick Delius - A Mass of Life: The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill; Naxos - available online
Bob Chilcott - The Angry Planet: BBC Singers, The Bach Choir, London Youth Choir, Finchley Children's Music Group, The Young Singers, David Hill; Signum Classics - available online

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • A remarkable work of reconstruction: Opera Rara's world premiere recording of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida (★★★★) - CD review
  • Iestyn Davies & the viol consort Fretwork in Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell at Temple Church (★★★★) - concert review 
  • Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics (★★★½) - CD review
  • The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form (★★★★½)  - opera review
  • Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera  - opera review
  • 18th & 21st century premieres: Pianist Clare Hammond on the music of Josef Myslivecek and Kenneth Hesketh - interview
  • The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera  - feature
  • Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say (★★★★) - CD review
  • Thrilling dynamism: Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas on Signum (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Imaginative debut: Rarities by Lalo and Milhaud on Hee-Young Lim's debut disc of French cello concertos (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Not heard since its 1956 premiere: Eugene Bozza's oratorio Le chant de la mine from Valenciennes (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Home

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