MUSIC / J S Bach's tiny dome of sound: The Albert Hall - a place where Sumo wrestlers wrestle and multinationals hold AGMs - is no one's living room
Sunday 31 July 1994
This is of course more than obvious, but it was hard not to be reminded of it during last Sunday's presentation of Bach's masterpiece in the Proms. In all other ways Joshua Rifkin's account of the work, so we were assured, gave us the exactest possible reproduction of Bach's own performance practice, the very cutting edge of authenticity. But you just knew Johann Sebastian would not have chosen the Albert Hall as a venue.
Musicologically, Rifkin's approach to Bach is at the centre of a nicely warm dispute. Did Bach use a choir to sing his choruses or not? Rifkin believes not, so in his Bach the choruses are sung by the soloists, doubling up for the occasion: 'minimal forces', like the programme said. Rifkin has proved his method can work by making some of the most distinctive and thrilling recordings of Bach choral works around. But the Albert Hall - a place where Sumo wrestlers wrestle and multinationals hold AGMs - is no one's living room.
The net result of all this was that a performance which may well have been excellent was for much of the time lost. In the massive opening chorus of the work, for example, the central melody - the cantus firmus that runs through it - was taken by a single soprano where normally a choir of boys would have sung it. If Rachel Platt had turned more in my direction when she sang (but she could hardly turn in everybody's direction) it might be possible to say a little more about her contribution. As it was, it got lost half a mile or so away.
In the end, not hearing voices or instrumental lines was our least problem. In so large a space this most intimate and contemplative work just couldn't make the required impact. For the soloists it was a shame, since they mostly sang very well. John Elwes, the tenor evangelist, controlled his long exposed tracts of recitative just right, striking the delicate balance between high emotion and dignified narrative; and the Swedish soprano Susanne Ryden, making her Proms debut, was really moving in her one big moment, the aria 'Blute nur, du lieber Herz'.
The orchestra was the combined Bach Ensemble (Rifkin's own) and the St James's Baroque Players. Again, hardly a massive body of sound - and the soloists, notably Sarah Cunningham's virtuoso viola da gamba - came across clearest. In the right place - a church, where it most 'authentically' belongs - perhaps Joshua Rifkin might just give us the ultimate performance of Bach's great Passion. But when the gentleman on my left said he wished he'd left a cassette running to record the Prom at home, he was spot on. Radio 3 listeners had the best of it.
This was pretty well proved by a late-night concert on Wednesday in which Harry Christophers conducted The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra. These people are noted period performers, too. But where Rifkin gave us eight to a chorus in Bach, The Sixteen, defying their name, gave us 26. Owing, if nothing else, to their greater size, they actually produced a murmur or two of excitement. But the greatest success of the evening came unexpectedly in Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden op 13 - a motet of sorts, once thought unsingable owing to its general late-romantic tonal mush. The Sixteen's account of it was heroic.
Another of the week's wonders - or so we had been led to expect - was, for me, a disappointment. This was Scenes and Arias, a 1962 piece by the British composer Nicholas Maw, given on Monday by the BBC SO under Mark Elder. A rarely-heard setting of early English love poetry for three women's voices, the work just didn't come across as the great and influential piece we were anticipating: Maw has changed since 1962, judging from his violin concerto of last year. Strangely off-balance, denying itself some obvious symmetrical pleasures offered by the verse, the language of the piece was too eclectic to be wholly engaging, its moments of great beauty regularly let down by gratuitous Sixties ear-attack, rude trumpets one moment, the old farting- trombone trick the next. The orchestra was on top form (conspicuously in Elgar's In the South before we left), but the greatest pleasure in Scenes and Arias was the simplest: three women's voices soaring away regardless and having a high old time.
There is one sure-fire antidote to audience disappointment in the British concert hall, and it - I mean he, Sir Simon Rattle - turned up on Thursday night, during a break from his hair-raising Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne. For his City of Birmingham SO and the Albert Hall, Rattle chose a stiffish programme: Debussy's La Mer as rousing send-off, Messiaen (the Debussyesque Poemes pour Mi, expertly sung and semi-spoken by Maria Ewing) and, in the first half, Sibelius and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
The work by Turnage - reformed angry young man of English music, so we're told - was Drowned Out. Whatever its inspiration - a novel by William Golding or even, the programme suggested, Turnage's asthma - this is, frankly, one hell of a piece. It's an enthralling bit of writing for the orchestra - with special reference to the percussion section. At one climax - the moment in the score marked 'very nasty', I assumed - a rather gentle-looking instrumentalist hit the bass drum with more viciousness than I had thought possible.
Not that Turnage's work is all vicious insult. Drowned Out (which was receiving its London premiere) has its moments of humour - a smiling jazz section among them. Essentially this is a young composer (34) showing off his skills. If at times Drowned Out seemed diffuse, it was nothing the CBSO couldn't tighten up. The audience warmed to it, and applauded more than politely when Turnage took a bow. When Rattle took his they went wild.
Michael White returns next week.
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