Monday 1 April 2024

Moving intimacy and sense of communication: Bach's St Matthew Passion from the Academy of Ancient Music, music director Laurence Cummings and just eight singers

Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion - Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings at Barbican Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion - Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings at Barbican Hall (Photo: Academy of Ancient Music)

Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion; Anna Dennis, Tim Mead, Nicholas Mulroy, George Humphreys, Mhairi Lawson, Magid El-Bushra, Paul Hopwood, Rodney Earl Clarke, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Barbican Hall
Reviewed 29 March 2024 (Good Friday)

Just eight soloists and 28 instrumentalists create a sense of intimacy yet profound communication, filling the hall in a way that made the whole a moving experience.

Some of Johann Sebastian Bach's masterworks from the 1730s and 1740s, such as the Mass in B minor and the Art of Fugue, not only have no apparent performance tradition from Bach's time but also leave us uncertain as to the exact performance forces that Bach envisaged. But an earlier masterwork, the St Matthew Passion, has a clear performance tradition from Bach's time, premiered in 1727, Bach performed it again in 1729, 1736, 1742, 1743 and 1746.

But even so, there is critical dispute as to the forces Bach intended. Joshua Rifkin, Andrew Parrott and others have established that in Leipzig, Bach worked within a Lutheran tradition of one voice to part; this is how many of the weekly cantatas might have been performed. For larger works, Lutheran tradition suggested a ripieno group to reinforce the solo voices in ensembles and certainly the organ loft at St Thomas' Church in Leipzig would preclude using a large choir. But what would Bach have liked as ideal?

We will probably never know. But what makes a lot of sense is that the St Matthew Passion works on multiple, myriad levels. A performance of the 1727 version with just eight singers, the right eight singers, makes a lot of musical sense and can be as powerful as a performance with six soloists and large choir.

Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings at Barbican Hall
Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings at Barbican Hall

As part of the orchestra's 50th anniversary season, the Academy of Ancient Music and music director Laurence Cummings gathered at the Barbican on 29 March 2024 with just eight singers to perform Bach's St Matthew Passion in its 1727 version. The singers were, choir 1: Anna Dennis, Tim Mead, Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), George Humphreys (Christus), choir 2: Mhairi Lawson, Magid El-Bushra, Paul Hopwood, Rodney Earl Clarke.

The 1727 has the opening chorus' soprano in ripieno part played on the organ, hence the ability to use just eight singers. But with this number, it meant that bass 2, Rodney Earl Clarke, was a bit of a Lord High Everything Else, as he played Judas, Peter, High Priest and Pilate!

Before the concert, I had a most illuminating chat with Dame Emma Kirkby about the acoustics of the hall, and what it is like both from the performers' point of view and that of the audience. For this performance, sSome thought had clearly gone into the placing of the orchestras and soloists, so the two orchestras were in wings with the strings facing each other, and the soloists on a raised platform, behind. From an acoustic point of view this worked admirably, the singers were at the sweet spot on the stage so the sound was wonderfully well balanced. The only drawback was that the Evangelist, Nicholas Mulroy, was at a greater distance from the audience than usual and he had to work harder, I missed the sense of communication that comes from having the Evangelist close to the audience.

There were fourteen players in each orchestra, with Laurence Cummings directing from the organ in orchestra one, whilst he and Alastair Ross (organist in orchestra two) shared harpsichord duties. Cummings took an almost leisurely approach to the opening chorus, giving the music plenty of space. The whole felt gentle, yet with a strength to it and there was a remarkable intimacy to having just eight singers, who brought a remarkable range of colours to the performance. We were definitely hearing two vocal ensembles of four, rather than a cut-down choir. For once, the strings did not overwhelm the colours of the whole, and there was strength and depth to the vocal contribution. The only drawback was that the chamber organs did not have quite enough welly to project the soprano in ripieno chorale.

Nicholas Mulroy made a mellifluous Evangelist, projecting the words across the space and really investing in the narration. Cummings sense of space in the whole piece meant that the pacing of the recitative was on the steady-side at times, this was the least operatic of performances. Drama was never lacking, but no-one pushed the more dramatic moments into operatic. At times trenchant,  intimate at others, Mulroy made the whole breaking of bread sequence into something dignified, yet personal and ultimately moving. In part two, there were moments when Mulroy positively spat out the words, and as the drama progressed, Mulroy brought out a sense of inner power to his narration.

Mulroy was wonderfully intense in his account of the recitative 'O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz' and full of character yet intimate in the aria, 'So schlafen unsre Sünden ein' and having the chorale sung by just four singers makes a lot more sense of the work's chorale-based arias.

George Humphreys made a dignified Christus, there was an innate nobility to his strength and whilst commanding he was also upright, imbuing his tone with darker colours as the drama progressed allied to a moving dignity and a sense of inner confidence. 

Humphreys brought moving dignity to the aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' with vivid viola da gamba playing from Reiko Ichise. In his final recitative, he was concentrated and centred, then in the aria 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein' a fluid tempo combined with a centred, understated performance which brought Humphreys' fine performance as Christus to a moving conclusion.

Anna Dennis was very intent in ' Ich will dir mein Herze schenken', conveying serious joy allied to distinctly perky oboes. For the lovely duet, 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' we had two expressively phrased, mellifluous voices (Dennis and Mead) intertwining and contrasting with the vividly sharp-edge contribution from choir two. In part two, Dennis was plangent in the rectative ' Er hat uns allen wohlgetan', poised, and moving in the subsequent aria, 'Aus Liebe'.

Tim Mead was serious and intent in 'Buß und Reu', the sense of intimacy having just flutes (terrific) and continuo heightened by the contrast between the rhythmic sway of the instruments and Mead's considered performance. Mead opened part two with an account of 'Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin!' that combined an intensity of line with great freedom, contrasting with the highly structured polyphony from choir two. 'Erbarme dich' had a gentle sway to it with Bojan Čičić's enticing violin solo complementing Mead's fluid and expressive line. Mead was similarly expressive and fluid in 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand uns zu fassen ausgespannt, kommt!', giving the music a nice urgency, contrasting with some fabulous oboe playing and a light, yet sharp contribution from choir two.

Mhairi Lawson gave a lyrical account of 'Blute nur, du liebes Herz!' yet with great intensity of expression. Magid El-Bushra was mellifluous and fluid in his aria, 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen', his timbre and reticence making a nice contrast with Mead's alto. Paul Hooper sang his recitative in part two with a strong sense of line, punctuated with wonderful wind chords, then the aria 'Geduld, Geduld!' was vivid, he really dug in with an edge to the tone when needed, yet gentleness too. Rodney Earl Clarke made a vivid Judas, contrasting with his distinctly trenchant Peter, and robust High Priest. Clarke brought dark tone and trenchant words to the recitative 'Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder' with the aria following being remarkably restrained and notable for some lovely chestnutty tones. He was robust and trenchant in his aria, ' Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!' in part two.

Chorales were usually fleet, with strong words and the turbae were universally vivid, even at its most violent or dramatic the music never felt underpowered. The chorus that ended part one was full of wonderful textures and timbres, quite fleet with a sense of confidence in the words. The final sequence makes a lot more sense with just eight singers, the final recitative profoundly touching, then ending with strong yet moving account of the final chorus.

The instrumental contribution had a similar intimacy to it, individual performers pairing with the soloists to create a sense of large-scale chamber music. This was a long way from the orchestral version of the work yet there was a strength to the performance, full of character that filled the hall.

Cummings' approach to the work felt relaxed, allowing space for everything to happen rather than forcing the drama. It was innately expressive with great intimacy and strong emphasis on the words.

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