Classical Music: A passion for Easter

Radio and television round-up
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The Independent Culture
Seasonal music on Radio 3 over Easter ranged from two superb programmes of motets by Josquin Despres and a performance of Rubbra's remarkable Sinfonia Sacra, which tells of Christ's resurrection, to a couple of cantatas and the Easter Oratorio of Bach. The presence was a fairly discreet one, and it took television's BBC2 to make the most dramatic musical impact of the week, with a re-run on Good Friday of Jonathan Miller's acclaimed production of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The relationship between serious music and the TV camera has often been an uneasy one. Rare is the director who doesn't succumb to the temptation to put visual demands before musical. Even the greatest music can become background support to fussy camerawork when concerts or operas are televised, and the danger is even greater when a composer's work is used to add colour to a biographical or documentary film about him.

Miller's remarkable treatment of the St Matthew Passion avoided all these pitfalls. Restrained yet powerful in its visual imagery, it allowed the music full rein and Bach's tremendous range of vision and musical techniques made an overwhelming impression. The camera remained tightly focused on the small groups of individuals even in the elaborate choral sections, and this, far from straitjacketing the music, allowed the mind of the viewer to range widely. The players were as dramatically involved as the singers, and obbligato instrumentalists received full camera treatment, bringing Bach's complex musical designs and textures movingly to life.

The overall impression was of a group of youthful, earnest and deeply committed friends immersing themselves in Bach's mighty invention, rather than "performing", and one could not but be touched by it. It was intimate, devotional yet searing, too, and, when the narrative called for it, heartachingly dramatic.

As for the actual singing and playing under the direction of Paul Goodwin, this was in the authentic manner with old instruments and brisk tempos. Once or twice the music's need to breathe was denied, and sometimes cadences were a little curt, but all in all the performance was finely paced. Richard Jackson was a warmly impressive Christ, and Rufus Mueller a magisterial Evangelist.

A few hours later, Radio 3 offered us a hardly less gripping experience in the first of two programmes devoted to Easter music by Josquin Despres. The 250 years that separate Josquin's art from that of Bach bring us to a vastly different intellectual and spiritual world, yet the power of Despres's music reveals a commensurate mastery of compositional science and, if at several removes from our current understanding of the term, an equally astonishing breadth of style. Rebecca Stewart and Cappella Pratensis had us hanging on every phrase in two magnificent motet sequences which communicated burningly across the five intervening centuries.