Sunday 4 April 2021

A Life On-Line: Passions from Wigmore Hall, St John's Smith Square and Berwaldhallen, Stockholm


Bach: St Matthew Passion - Amici Voices in rehearsal at St John's Smith Square

Being as it is Easter weekend, there seem to be a plethora of Bach passions on the internet, with a wide variety of performing styles. Whilst we know that Bach's own performances of his passions were with a tiny number of performers and the argument for one to a part is strong, the beauty of these works is that they don't just survive other types of performance but almost seem to thrive.

Thankfully it wasn't just Bach that was on offer either. At the Wigmore Hall there was a performance of the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani (1622-1683), a composer based in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia) where he was cantor at the cathedral in 1661, and court Kapellmeister from 1663 to 1679. His passion is notable apparently being the first to introduce chorales into the passion genre. The work is quite compact, five singers, Elisabeth Paul, Samuel Boden, Hugo Hymas (Evangelist), Benedict Hymas, and Jimmy Holliday (Christus), plus four viols (Fretwork), two violins (Bokan Čičić and Elin White) and organ (Silas Wollaston), conducted by Richard Boothby. It is a fascinating work which looks back to Schütz and forward to Bach, though it lacks the sheer operatic effect that Bach brought to the genre. Sebastiani's approach felt to be dialogue based, without the operatic drama, but what came over most was the sound of the viols. They must have been rather old-fashioned at the time yet the timbres and textures of the viol consort imbued the work with a very particular sense of timbre and grave expressiveness. Well worth exploring. [Wigmore Hall]

Our Good Friday Passion viewing developed some interesting technical problems, which I won't bore you with, which meant that I was relieved to have such a wide variety of performances to choose from. We watched Bach's St John Passion which was broadcast live from the Swedish Radio concert hall, Berwaldhallen in Stockholm. In Sweden, Bach's St John Passion was first performed in 1898 conducted by William Stenhammer. 

Here Daniel Harding conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir with Julia Kleiter (soprano), Ann Hallenberg (alto), Andrew Staples (Evangelist and tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), and Matthew Rose (Christus). This was a strong cast with singers experienced both in Bach and in later repertoire. There was no audience, this was for the cameras and the microphones, and the visual element was directed by Andrew Staples. There was no quasi operatic element, but lighting and camera work emphasised the work's drama.

This was a medium-sized event, the size of the forces was chamber orchestra and choir and whilst Daniel Harding's approach was highly dramatic there was no attempt to try and convince us that Bach was a romantic symphonic composer, both orchestra and chorus took a modern yet lithe approach to the music. This was a performance which brought out the drama and intelligently balanced Bach's music, and we never felt overwhelmed by rich orchestral vibrato.

Andrew Staples was an expressive and dramatic Evangelist. Not every operatic tenor is at home in the tessitura of this part but Staples clearly is and used his voice to profoundly expressive effect. The performance was perhaps somewhat slower than some, but this gave the Evangelist a considered yet dramatic effect. By contrast, Staples was vivid and vibrant in the arias. Matthew Rose was a sympathetic Jesus, not too monumental and rather warm yet also suitably gnomic. A very affecting performance.

Soprano Julia Kleiter is an experienced lyric soprano and she brought this wealth of experience to her arias in a finely expressive way. Ann Hallenberg was simply magical in the alto arias, making you wish Bach had written more for the singer. Hallenberg is well known for her performances in Handel opera, and here she brought that sense of style to the arias along with a profound sense of the expressivness of the words. In the bass arias, Christian Gerhaher brought a sense of the lieder singer's daring to them, he more than any of the singers made you understand this was a performance for the microphones not for a  concert hall audience, yet his account of Pilates dialogue was wonderfully dramatic making the interchanges with Matthew Rose's Christus fairly crackle. 

The event was live-streamed on Berwaldhallen website and on Medici TV.

On Holy Saturday it was Bach's St Matthew Passion from Amici Voices, directed by Helen Charlston, at St John's Smith Square. This wasn't live-streamed, it had been filmed the week before but was a film of a live performance with each Part being done in one single take. The result was impressive on many levels, the sheer logistics of bringing together a complete St Matthew Passion (not quite three hours of music for two choirs and two orchestras) in the present circumstances, and add to that the taxing idea of performing one to a part, yet the results were at times breathtaking. A group of nine young singers (two choirs of four plus an addition soprano for the ripieno sections in the choruses) accompanied by an ensemble including some of the finest historical performance figures around today. 

So for singers we had Rowan Pierce, Helen Charlston, Nick Pritchard (Evangelist), Michael Craddock (Christus), Jessica Cale, Alexander Chance, Guy Cutting, Frederick Long and Molly Noon.
Orchestra 1 was led by Bojan Čičić with Magdalena Loth-Hill (violin), Stefanie Heichelheim (viola), Jonathan Rees (cello & gamba), Peter McCarthy (violone), Ashley Solomon & Marta Goncalves (flutes), Leo Duarte & Bethan White (oboes), William Whitehead (organ).
Orchestra 2 was led by Oliver Webber with Gabriella Jones (violin), Katie Heller (viola), Henrik Persson (cello & gamba), Jan Zahourek (bass),  Rachel Brown & Eva Caballero (flutes), Gail Hennessy & Geoff Coates (oboes), Julian Perkins (harpsichord).

The performance was in the round, so that the singers of choir 1 faced orchestra 1, and for the solos the soloist stood in the middle. Whilst we lacked an element of the back and forth between the two ensembles in the larger scale choruses it worked supremely well, facilitating the no-conductor approach.

We don't know how many performers Bach had, but the surviving parts suggest that there were pretty few. If we sidestep the "what Bach would have preferred" argument for a moment, then this style of performance works supremely well if you have a talented group of singers. It is taxing work, with each singer performing chorus, chorale and solos, there is nowhere to hide. And what was impressive about this line up was that it was so well balanced, everyone stepped up to the mark. Yet it wasn't just about technical questions, there was an intimacy to this performance, Without an audience, there was a sense of this being re-enacted for the performers themselves.

The palm must go to Nick Pritchard, who seemed entirely effortless yet was constantly moving and engaging as the Evangelist, whilst singing chorus tenor and a powerful account of his Part One aria. As the Evangelist he was fluid and fluent, you never sensed any strain, yet he could fine his voice right down were necessary. I have heard Pritchard as Evangelist before and his was a very lived-in experience, and all the better for it, yet his aria was supremely different. Michael Craddock made a very human Christus, quite direct at times and you felt his youth which is unusual as Christus is often cast as an older, dignified bass figure despite Christ being only 33 at the time. Craddock was touching in the lovely final aria.

Both sopranos Rowan Pierce and Jessica Cale contributed beautifully shaped and expressive arias, whilst of course the lion's share goes to alto 1 which was Helen Charlston. She was diginfied yet profoundly moving, her plangent tones finely expressive. The aria for the two Daughters of Sion at the end of Part One, sung by Pierce and Charlston with the singers from choir 2, was a profoundly beatiful experience. In his solo Alexander Chance was very affecting with such an emotional edge to his voice that you thought he would burst into tears at any moment. Guy Cutting made a very strong impression in his aria in Part Two, singing with controlled intensity and a great sense of the text. Frederick Long was wonderfully vivid in his solos, combinging an expressive line with lovely dark tone.

One of the joys of this version is the sense of continuity, so that moments like tenor 1's Part One aria with choir 2, or the Daughters of Sion duet with choir 2 cease to be aria or duet with choir backing but become a quintet or a sextet. In the Sebastiani, though he had aria moments the sense of distinction between aria, chorus and dialogue was minimal, the work flowed. Yet with Bach's Passions performed with choir there is an inevitable distinction. Here we simply had fluidity, all the more so because the work flowed naturally with no pauses.

For those who prefer the big choruses to have weight, then worry not. There was certainly no lack of weight and intensity when the nine singers let rip. And they were superbly partnered by the instrumental ensembles, whether it be the rich full orchestra or more intimate solo moments. Balance worked well, with great clarity throughout, so that in even the big 'choral' moments there was plenty of incidental instrumental detail which can sometimes get lost. In the arias we had a welter of superb solo moments, and whilst I treasure Ashley Solomon's solo flute or Bojan Čičić in 'Erbarme dich' what really sticks in the memory is the sound of the oboes da caccia, such wonderful instruments superbly played (making them sound easy, which they are not).

This was a different experience from hearing the work live, yet the performers made it very distinctive and ultimately profoundly moving. The performance is available on-demand from On Jam.

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