Growing up in solidly Christian South Wales half a century ago, I got used to the streets going quiet on Good Friday, with the three-hour midday service spreading its lugubrious atmosphere into every nook and cranny. "I want you all to go home without speaking, as though you have just lost a friend," said the vicar as we dispersed one year, and such was the power of religion – and the music that went with it – that nobody batted an eyelid.
With church attendance figures now lower, a curious void has opened up in the communal consciousness: this may explain why choral concerts are always packed on Good Friday, as with the Bach Mass in B Minor, delivered by the Holst Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music under Stephen Layton's baton, in St John's, Smith Square.
This final choral composition is the summit of Bach's ecclesiastical achievement: in it he offered a summation not only of his own artistry, but also of the whole contemporary armoury of vocal and instrumental styles.
Layton's beat was a shade fussy as the singers began the opening "Kyrie", but when they settled into this gigantic fugue, with its seemingly endless interlocking chains of melody, one realised everything would be fine. The choir's sound, though small, was fresh and intensely vibrant, and the period orchestra, with real virtuosi on horn and oboe, complemented it immaculately. In the climbing woodwind figures of the "Gloria", and in the darkening textures of the "Et incarnatus est" leading to the hushed silence of the Crucifixion, choir and orchestra combined to wonderful effect.
Two of the soloists rose magnificently to this challenge, and two did not. Roderick Williams' bass arias were warmly sung, but his bottom notes were barely audible, while the young soprano Elin Manahan Thomas didn't seem to understand the requirements of the occasion. She has a pretty voice, but she didn't project it at all, and in her duets with that superb counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, she dropped completely off the sonic map. The tenor Andrew Kennedy was the other star of the show.Reuse content