Counter-tenor reaches new high with Bach

Bach/Mass in B minor, Bach/St Mark Passion | Proms, Royal Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture

Amid the flurry of crisp new commissions being premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week (including a symphony by Robin Holloway, violin concerto by James Dillon and choral piece from Jonathan Harvey), it would have been easy to dismiss the two all-Bach Proms. I mean, hasn't the Baroque composer had more than his fair share of partying this year? In celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death there have been festivals dedicated to his music all over the world, including a year-long cantata pilgrimage by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir; there have been several new biographies, a rush of freshly packaged CD sets and even a staging of the St John Passion at English National Opera.

Amid the flurry of crisp new commissions being premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week (including a symphony by Robin Holloway, violin concerto by James Dillon and choral piece from Jonathan Harvey), it would have been easy to dismiss the two all-Bach Proms. I mean, hasn't the Baroque composer had more than his fair share of partying this year? In celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death there have been festivals dedicated to his music all over the world, including a year-long cantata pilgrimage by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir; there have been several new biographies, a rush of freshly packaged CD sets and even a staging of the St John Passion at English National Opera.

But the first of the Bach Proms was particularly special. It was, after all, the night when, on 28 July exactly 250 years ago, Bach died. The Barbican took the minimalist approach to commemoration by remaining dark; the Royal Festival Hall chose not to acknowledge it either, instead promoting jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and friends; the Wigmore Hall gave Bach a bigger nod with an evening of his work presented by early music protagonists. But it was the Proms which truly seized the musical moment - on the concert platform, BBC TV and radio - with the great Mass in B minor performed with fervour by the choir and period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Roger Norrington.

The tribute opened with Lieber Herr Gott which handily supported the hypothesis that Bach wanted the motet written by his father's cousin, Johann Christoph Bach, to be performed at his funeral. Although heard in Johann Sebastian's eight-voice arrangement with woodwinds and strings, it was a simple affair in the old 17th-century church style. A quirky choice then, but one that had meaning. And the Proms always should retain a platform for unusual offerings. But it was from the very start of the Mass that Norrington and his performers brought to the music an intensity and intimacy I've rarely experienced in a Baroque piece in the Royal Albert Hall. After half an hour of only hearing the words, " Kyrie", "eleison" and "Christe", you might imagine your boredom threshold being tweaked. Not so. The hall was full to capacity, the usual coughings shocked into silence. When the fruits of Bach's inventiveness collide with the flair and finesse of musicians on such crackling form, eyes and ears remain enraptured. Bach's interweaving fugal paths were made immediately apparent, long flowing melismas had direction and individual words were given dramatic inflection. With so much praising of God going on, it was a joy to hear the choir's varying nuances for worshipping, thanking, trusting or pleading. Norrington, when in such feisty form, makes you hear the music differently. His rapid "Cum Sancto Spiritu" elicted urgent cries of "Sancto" which punctuated the hall's atmosphere. By contrast, in the minor "Et incarnatus est" with its mention of the Holy Ghost, discords melted into an unearthly aura. Moods and tempi were changed to dramatic effect. And all the while the egoless orchestra matched, shaded and inspired. Of the soloists, the big pull was David Daniels, the young American who's riding high on the current counter-tenor cruise to stardom. In the Credo duet with soprano Dominique Labelle, however, Daniels' voice sounded surprisingly petite. But then I realised he was drawing the crowds in, making us pay attention, making us truly listen to the subtleties of Bach's music. And it took just one thing - the way his honey-toned voice quivered with melancholia as he sang the solo Agnus Dei - to reconvince me that he is one of today's exceptional singers. The other soloists didn't quite live up to the electrifying standard of the choir. Mezzo Annette Markert sounded a little too heavily operatic for Norrington's light styling, although she duetted well with Labelle; tenor Mark Padmore could have projected his voice with more passion, while the bass, Alastair Miles, had his limelight ripped away from him by some majestic horn playing from Roger Montgomery.

Other stunning solo instrumental playing accompanied the arias, particularly from violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and his sister, the flautist Lisa. All in all, a rousing occasion - beefier than anything Bach would have heard - but an uplifting, if a little belated, send-off.

Three days later another authentic-instrument pioneer paid homage to Bach in a very different way. Although there is documentation that Bach's St Mark Passion was performed in Leipzig in 1731, no music survives, only the text. Keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman has usurped the traditional setting of the Trauer Ode, and instead has called on other Bach cantatas and chorales which he deemed particularly suitable.

As with the existing St John and St Matthew Passions, recitatives form narrative links, but in this instance, they are Koopman's own. Purists may balk at the idea of patchwork Bach, but recycling old pieces for new creations was hardly an alien concept to any Baroque maestro. You only have to look at the B minor Mass to see that the Sanctus, Crucifixus and Agnus Dei had all existed in previous incarnations. Compilations were marketing tools long before you heard Now 56! or The Best Of... Not surprisingly, the St Mark reconstruction took Koopman three years - and the careful attention and research he's given it shows. Choosing a falling chromatic passage from Cantata 179 to mirror the crowd tormenting Christ's descent from the cross, was just one example. No doubt his ongoing project of recording the entire cantatas threw up some little-known gems. But inspired moments - and there were plenty - are not enough to carry the demands of a Passion story. Since its premiÿre in Stuttgart last year, Koopman has performed it about 25 times.

Last Monday's reading given by the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra felt well rehearsed, but for a first UK outing it lacked excitement and punch. While Christoph Prégardien as Evangelist and Peter Kooy as Christus did their utmost in creating pace within their often long recitatives, the balance between arias, cantatas and chorales seemed lopsided. The sheer number of hymnal reflections began to have a soporific effect on the momentum, particularly when in the hands of the Amsterdam ensembles' uniformly smooth interpretations. While not exactly an earth-shattering addition to the choral repertoire, Koopman's St Mark won my prize for the most dedicated commemoration of Bach's anniversary. You never know, come Easter, you may welcome this alternative Passion setting. But will other conductors take it on?

Anna Picard is back next week

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