Friday 10 September 2021

Mixed blessing: Bach's St Matthew Passion at the BBC Proms with never quite solves the problem of how to fill the Royal Albert Hall with this profoundly contemplative work

Bach: St Matthew Passion - Arcangelo in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall - BBC Proms
Bach: St Matthew Passion - Arcangelo in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall - BBC Proms

Bach St Matthew Passion; Stuart Jackson, Matthew Rose, Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Hugo Hymas, Roderick Williams, Arcangelo, choristers of St Paul's Cathedral, Jonathan Cohen; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 September 2021
Jonathan Cohen brings together a fine array of soloists and instrumentalists for a very traditional style performance with moments of great musical beauty

The first performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Proms wasn't until 1968 (with Karl Richter as conductor) though Sir Henry Wood had conducted highlights from the work earlier in the century. And Wood was no stranger to the complete St Matthew Passion as he conducted it at the Sheffield Festival in 1908 with a chorus of 300 and an orchestra including 'eight flutes, eight oboes and eight bassoons', a practical and effective solution to using a huge choir to perform a work written for quite tiny forces.

This question of how to, or whether to, expand the size of the St Matthew Passion to fill the space is one which hangs over every performance of it at the Royal Albert Hall. On Thursday 9 September 2020, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo performed Bach's St Matthew Passion with relatively traditional period forces including Stuart Jackson (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Louise Alder (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Hugo Hymas (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone). So we had two orchestras of around 18 players each, two choirs of 17 singers each, plus the boys from St Paul's Cathedral Choir, director of music Andrew Carwood, for the ripieno. All well and good, and all traditional.

Except, of course, that it isn't. Such a style of performance is a modern invention. Bach's passions were written to be performed during the Lutheran services in Leipzig, where there was a tradition of using a small group of soloists. In 1994, Joshua Rifkin directed the St Matthew Passion at the BBC Proms with just a group of soloists, who sang everything. This is a style of performance that Bach would have recognised, and even if he had used more than eight singers (eight soloists and eight ripieno would work well), the arias would be sung be singers who were also singing the choruses and chorales, both the Evangelist and Christ sang arias as well. The result is brings an element of communality to the performance.

The question nowadays, particularly with large venues and big choirs, isn't so much whether Bach would have performed the work with just eight singers, but what decisions he might have made to expand the performance. Within 30 years of Handel's death, a tradition had grown up of performing his oratorios with larger choirs plus soloists. Many of these works were premiered with relatively small choral forces and with the soloists singing in the choir, so when expanding the forces the 18th century musicians simply factored everything up, including those oboes and flutes. Sir Henry Wood's performance is starting to look a lot less retrograde.

Haydn heard one such Handel commemoration performance in London in the 1790s, which led to his oratorios and the idea of using large forces. Mozart would re-work Handel to make him fit 18th century conventions, but the music of Bach disappeared until the revival in the 19th century. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann reworked Baroque music to suit the forces available (large choirs and halls with no organ, hence the extra instrumental parts). Bach's passions were presented as part of this large-scale oratorio tradition. And this style of performance still influences us today.

Performing the St Matthew Passion with eight main soloists, as Bach intended, becomes awkward and uneconomic if the soloists only sing the arias. Jonathan Cohen's decisions regarding his performing forces are entirely understandable, given the needs of the space and the traditions he has inherited. But having just four soloists, plus Christ and Evangelist, meant that the four singers (Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Hugo Hymas, Roderick Williams) were doing a constant shuttle back stage so that each of their arias was sung with the correct orchestra. 

Bach imbued the St Matthew Passion with what might seem and excess of numerology, but this was important to him, the two ensembles have different dramatic functions, at a basic level ensemble one takes an active role in the drama whilst ensemble two comments on it. We lose aspects of this if the same singer pops up each time, whether singing with ensemble one or ensemble two. And moving to larger scale forces means that the arias with chorus, which in Bach's day would have been a sort of quintet, with a singer from ensemble one performing with four singers from ensemble two, become the soloist (who is singing arias from ensemble one and ensemble two) performing with the choir acting almost as backing vocals.

One of the problems with this oratorio style of performance is that it reduces Bach's passion to a series of component parts, Evangelist narrative, Christ's pronouncements, solo arias, choruses, and knitting them all together into a single dramatic work can be tricky. The St John Passion is somewhat easier in this respect as it offers greater dramatic thrust, whereas the St Matthew Passion is rather more contemplative.

Whilst there were many moments of profound beauty at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday, for me the performance did not come together as a complete experience. Whilst Jonathan Cohen's tempos for some sections were suitably fleet, with the dance element underpinning the arias often coming to the fore, the whole work did not quite flow as a contemplative dramatic whole. 

Stuart Jackson has the makings of a very fine Evangelist indeed, Lyrical, with a lovely ease at the top of his voice, yet with a willingness to push the drama, his was a performance full of superb detail. But, embedded in the orchestra, he seemed somewhat distant from us yet if you zoomed in, there was a very compelling performance indeed. Matthew Rose made a strong almost trenchant Christ, bringing power and emphasis to each pronouncement and giving the whole a somewhat truculently gnomic quality.

Louise Alder began her first aria with an expressive sense of calm beauty, and throughout there was a sense of poise, clarity and expressive phrasing. Iestyn Davies sang with profound beauty of tone throughout, shaping phrases with almost a miraculous sense of style and elegance, bringing a melancholy beauty to the music. Alder and Davies blended together finely for their duet, sung with impressive blend and poise. Hugo Hymas has quite a lyric tenor voice, but he upped the emotional content and intensity of his performances so that each aria really did project the emotion into the hall Roderick Williams sang with directness, frankness and ease, a lovely feeling of communicability. But what I missed with many of the solos was a sense of dramatic and emotional connection to the ongoing story, too often there was a feeling that the aria was a profound artefact being presented in its own right.

The choirs were in very fine form. Sitting quite close together, we didn't have the feeling of spatial contrast in the great choruses and the opening chorus gave a strong feeling of blended sound to the piece. But each choir was highly responsive, creating just the right musical mood for Cohen. The boys from St Paul's made a seemingly effortless impact on the performance, bringing fine focus and clarity to their line in the opening chorus and the closing of Part One.

The two orchestras blended with and supported the choirs in a way which made for an entirety of sound, though inner detail was sometimes rather blurred thanks, perhaps, to the hall. Individual solos were simply superb and throughout the evening I enjoyed the imaginative sense that players brought to their moments in the spotlight. Not just violinists Sophie Gent and Matthew Truscott, and viola da gamba player Jonathan Manson (who also contributed some fine continuo), but the trios of oboes and bassoon in various arias, the flutes duetting and more.

The orchestra included a harpsichord, played by Jonathan Cohen, and an organ, played by Tom Foster. Neither entirely satisfactorily solved the problems inherent in this type of performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Too often the detail in Cohen's performance was at best blurred, at worst inaudible and the instrument barely registered when it played in ensembles. The organ (a large-sized chamber one) functioned well as a continuo instrument, but lacked the power and depth of tone to be able to register during the choruses.

It was a long time since we were able to hear one of Bach's passions live, and I suspect that for many people in the hall, this St Matthew Passion was their first live Bach passion for over two years. In that respect, the performance fulfilled a profound need and was a fine culmination of an imaginative BBC Proms season. There was musicality and expressivity in every pore of this performance, with a fine group of singers and instrumentalists coming together. Unfortunately, for me, the performance ultimately made me think as much about the problems of performing Bach's passions under modern concert condition as as about Bach and Picander's profound, contemplative drama.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and so is on BBC Sounds, whilst the filmed event is being broadcast on BBC 4 tonight (10 September 2021), and in many ways these recordings may highlight vastly different aspects of the performance to those experience sitting in Row 11 of the stalls at the Royal Albert Hall.

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