Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory

Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Bach St John Passion (1725 version); Solomon's Knot; Wigmore Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 April 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Solomon's Knot brings intimacy and directness to their account of the rarely performed 1725 version of the passion

The ensemble Solomon's Knot brought its trademark qualities of directness and intimacy to the Wigmore Hall last night (Tuesday 16 April 2019) in a performance of Bach's St John Passion given by eight singers (Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Zoe Brookshaw, Michal Czerniawski, Kate Symonds-Joy, Thomas Herford, Ruairi Bowen, Jonathan Sells and Alex Ashworth) and an instrumental ensemble of fourteen, leader James Toll. Performed without a conductor, the singers sang from memory with all participating in the choruses and chorales, sharing the arias and the two tenors sharing the role of the Evangelist.

This was not, strictly, a dramatised performance but having the singers without either music or conductor means that the communication with the audience becomes paramount, there is nowhere to hide. And it wasn't just whilst performing, one of the delights of the evening was watching the performers reacting whilst others were singing. The singers stood in a semi-circle, with individuals stepping forward during solos and the recitative then stepping back for chorales and choruses, this meant that tenors Thomas Herford and Ruari Bowen were particularly mobile, and this created a nice sense of dynamism to the performance. Only during the longer arias did the singers sit down.

The performance flowed well, there were no awkward pauses and both singers and instrumentalists created a real forward flow of the drama. This was in no way an operatic performance, but it was one which valued the drama of the music and the text. One particularly notable sequence was the long scene before Pilate where the interaction between Thomas Herford (Evangelist), Jonathan Sells (Pilate) and Alex Ashworth (Christ) combined with the vivid choruses to create really involving drama.

Herford was a mellifluous Evangelist yet he also prized the text; this was a deeply felt and considered performance. Ruari Bowen, who was Evangelist during the section dealing with the Christ's crucifixion and death, was very direct and forthright yet created some intense moments during the closing scenes. Alex Ashworth was a very human and humane, almost every day, Christ figure, again very direct in his communication, and Jonathan Sells clearly relished the element of drama that the role of Pilate brings. The instrumental ensemble played a big role in the recitative, and in particular George Ross's cello showed how much drama could be brought to Bach's music.

The chorales were direct and very communicative, whilst the choruses were often wonderfully vivid with the singers almost tumbling in after the recitative, reacting in a highly characterful way. There was very much an element of communal experience to this, one that extended to the instrumentalists with many of the solo instruments stepping forward to play the obbligato parts from memory, becoming part of the drama.

The version used was Bach's 1725 revision which is full of changes which are rarely performed (in subsequent years Bach returned more to the 1724 original), and this gave a sense of seeing the work anew.

Kate Symonds-Joy gave a strong, powerfully focused and highly communicative account of 'Von den Stricken meiner Sunden' whilst Zoe Brookshaw brought a real sense of joy to 'Ich folge gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten'  partnered by the two flutes. Alex Ashworth (who also sang Christ) made the vivid rage aria 'Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe' arise directly out of the preceding drama, with terrific support from cello and bassoon, and a counterpointing chorale from the sopranos and flutes. Ruari Bowen was bright and vivid in 'Zerschmettert mich' making the rage of this aria almost operatic.

Thomas Herford gave a deeply felt account of 'Ach, windet euch night so, geplagte Seelen' in a performance which plunged on headlong, and Alex Ashworth was similarly impulsive in 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnene Seelen'. Michal Czerniawski sang plangently in 'Es ist vollbracht' giving full weight to the words, and the superb viola da gamba obbligato was played by Jan Zahourek. Jonathan Sells sang with lyricism and commitment to the words in 'Mein teurer Heiland' with highly characterful bassoon and cello support. The oboes da caccia gave a really earthy sound to Ruari Bowen's arioso 'Mein Herz indem die ganze Welt', and Leo Duarte's oboe da caccia solo in 'Zerfliesse, mein Herz' complemented Clare Lloyd-Griffith's fragile performance, this really was a woman on the edge.

The sense of communal involvement in the whole piece communicated itself to the audience, and this was one of those accounts of the passion which really drew you in. Performing without a conductor provides challenges, and the work is a long sing for just eight singers, but this was one of those performances which transcended any limitations and created a very involving and very human account of the passion.

Soprano: Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Zoe Brookshaw
Alto: Michal Czerniawski, Kate Symonds-Joy
Tenor: Thomas Herford, Ruari Bowen
Bass: Jonathan Sells (artistic director), Alex Ashworth

Violins: James Toll, Agata Daraskaite, Guy Button, Claudia Norz
Viola: Joanne Miller, Elitsa Bogdanova
Cello: George Ross
Double bass, viola da gamba: Jan Zhourek
Flute: Eva Caballero, Marta Goncalves
Oboe, Oboe da caccia: Leo Duarte, Bethan White
Basoon: Inga Maria Klaucke
Harpsichord, Organ: Pawel Siwczak

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns to the Komische Oper, Berlin - music theatre review
  • Small-scale delights at the edge of Handel’s London: Chandos Anthems & Trio Sonatas at St Lawrence Whitchurch (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production (★★★½) - opera review
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
  • A musical encounter between two traditions: classical guitarist Christoph Denoth's exploration of tango - Tanguero: Music from South America  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Barrie Kosky’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Komische Opera, Berlin
    (★★★★ - musical theatre review
  • Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo  - (★★★★concert review
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
  • A stylish My Fair Lady at the Komische Oper in Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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