Monday 5 April 2021

A Life On-Line: Rosary Sonatas and St John Passion

Bach: St John Passion - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Photo from film directed by Grant Gee)
Bach: St John Passion - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Photo from film directed by Grant Gee)

Easter Sunday saw us continuing our rich feast of on-line Easter music, with a complete cycle of Heinrich Biber's Rosary Sonatas from St John's Smith Square, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's filmed performance of Bach's St John Passion (a co-production with Marquee TV).

Sunday began with Biber's Rosary Sonatas, throughout the day there were instalments of violinist Bojan Čičić and organist Steven Devine's performance of Biber's astonishing cycle of violin sonatas, The Joyful Mysteries in the morning, The Sorrowful Mysteries in the afternoon and The Glorious Mysteries in the evening. The sonatas were written in the 1600s, but it is uncertain whether Biber wrote them specially or used pre-existing works, and as the sole manuscript's title page is missing we don't even know what Biber intended for his continue instruments. Here, Čičić and Devine use just violin and organ, throwing attention on the violin and its array of colours. The cycle is very much about the violin, Biber's use of scordatura (alternative tunings) means that throuughout the cycle he manipulates the violin's tuning to create different colours and tensions. 

The music is rightly celebrated for its challenges and difficulties, the advanced techniques that Biber (himself a violinist) used. Čičić brought out the music's style and expressivity, this wasn't virtuoso playing for its own sake and the various scordatura effects were part of the performances. This being a film, of course, we missed the transitions between the various sonatas where instruments must be changed, retuned etc. which make a live performance of the cycle another challenge. 

We don't really know if Biber would have regarded it as a cycle in the performing sense, did he anticipate someone playing all the sonatas together? The individual sonatas add up to a remarkable sequence, would it originally have been a musical experience or would the listeners have explicitly linked the performance to the contemplating the Rosary?

In a sense this was quite a plain performance, just two men alone in St John's (joined by a violone for one sonata), no visual leavening and leaving us to concentrate on the music and the performances. Throughout Čičić was finely supported by Devine, who gave the organ a discreet personality of its own. And then, of course, the cycle ended with Čičić along in the stupendous 'Passacaglia' with its pre-echoes of Bach's 'Chaconne'.

This is very much festival music, my knowledge of the sonatas is largely drawn from recordings and it is a great statement of intent that St John's climaxed its Easter celebrations with Čičić and Devine's performances. [St John's Smith Square]

On Sunday evening we caught up with another of the passion performances which were released on Good Friday. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) filmed Bach's St John Passion in the distressed splendour of the great hall at Battersea Arts Centre in March 2021. The film was directed by Grant Gee and the music director was Mark Padmore who sang the Evangelist. The OAE, led by Margaret Faultless, were joined by an ensemble of 13 singers, mixing experienced solo singers with consort singers in a way which meant that the arias were not sung by a single soloist but shared out. Mark Padmore was the Evangelist, Gerald Finley was Christus (and sang 'Betrachte'), and there were solos from Jessica Cale, Rowan Pierce, Helen Charlston, Bethany Horak-Hallet, Hugo Hymas, Jonathan Brown (who sang Peter), and Neal Davies (who sang Pilate), and they were joined by Daisy Walford (who sang the Maid), David Clegg, Laurence Kilsby (who sang the Servant), and Philip Tebb.

Padmore was a very visceral Evangelist, not re-telling but re-living the experience and using his voice to striking effect to create the widest range of colours. By contrast Finley as Christus was controlled and interior, a very considered performance where he used lieder singer's experience to make each word count, using the smallest gestures to telling effect.

Everyone sang in the choruses and chorales, and the performance was in the round, clearly led by Padmore but not strictly directed by him. This was a communal effort, and the result of the allocation of solos was to make the performance something of a communal one, a group re-telling of events. There were elements here of ideas used in various stagings of the work, and this was emphasised by the camera work which concentrated as much on the other performers and their reactions as on the singers themselves. There was one other performer, the actor Nakhane, they provided an element of religious context as they prefixed the performance with a reading of the opening lines of St John's Gospel ('In the beginning was the word') and in the interval between the parts, where the sermon would have been, they read from Psalm 22 ('My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?') and T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday.

The distribution of the arias meant that we got a wider array of individual performing styles, giving each aria a particular sense and colour (only tenor Hugo Hymas sang two), a device that I rather enjoyed. There were many notable and moving performances in the evening, and it is difficult to single out individuals but there is one aria that stayed in my memory, Neal Davies performance of the final bass aria, full of resigned acceptance and a very lived-in sense weariness.

With the discussions about performances during Bach's lifetime, and the consideration of what he was able to do and might have wanted to do, I have noticed little apparent discussion about what form an expanded performance of the Passions might have taken, ensembles seem to take it as read that this would involve a small choir and six soloists, but here we had a different yet still 'historical' approach which worked well.

The performance ended with Jacob Handl's motet Ecce quomodo moritur justus, which always concluded the Good Friday passion in Leipzig, here sung movingly by all performers, singers and instrumentalists alike. 

[OAE Player]

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