Hallé Orchestra / Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

No one in the audience at the Hallé's Maundy Thursday performance of Bach's St John Passion was able to compare Mark Elder's interpretation with that of Hans Richter when this orchestra last programmed it. The St John has been a particularly long time in coming round again - 103 years, in fact - but was well worth the wait. Sometimes a performance speaks from the heart, directly to the heart. This was one of those rare occasions. Elder secured performances of humanity, intelligence and intensity, allowing the Passion story to take shape at a pace that was lively enough to keep the attention focused yet never at the expense of the smallest detail. The coughers were silenced, the rustlers and restless stilled, and the large, responsive, audience was drawn in, from the opening chorus to the final chorale.

No one in the audience at the Hallé's Maundy Thursday performance of Bach's St John Passion was able to compare Mark Elder's interpretation with that of Hans Richter when this orchestra last programmed it. The St John has been a particularly long time in coming round again - 103 years, in fact - but was well worth the wait. Sometimes a performance speaks from the heart, directly to the heart. This was one of those rare occasions. Elder secured performances of humanity, intelligence and intensity, allowing the Passion story to take shape at a pace that was lively enough to keep the attention focused yet never at the expense of the smallest detail. The coughers were silenced, the rustlers and restless stilled, and the large, responsive, audience was drawn in, from the opening chorus to the final chorale.

It helped that Timothy Robinson, as The Evangelist, had the qualities of a persuasive story-teller, becoming ever more urgently communicative as the tale unfolded in Neil Jenkins's English translation. Carolyn Sampson brought a dance-like delicacy to her first aria, while Michael Chance wove the sort of magic one associates with Britten's Oberon. Neal Davies filled the role of Jesus with due solemnity, but it was Toby Spence who lent his tenor arias the greatest degree of atmosphere and lyrical spontanteity.

Elder is not a conductor whom one immediately associates with a baroque repertoire and yet, under his unobtrusive but authoritative direction,the Hallé proved itself adept at creating an appropriately different sound world. The string playing was marvellously lucid, coloured by exquisite wind obbligati while the alert and sensitive continuo group was exemplary in its unmannered articulation. The dramatic performance took flight and came across as a thoughtfully effective reflection on - rather than any sort of "authentic" recreation of - Bach's original intentions. The Hallé Choir contributed thrillingly, wholly involved, and involving, from its position on the stage, surrounding the instrumentalists. Despite being a far cry from the currently fashionable one-to-a-part chorus, it succeeded in being both sensitive and fervent, fast-talking its way through the casting of lots for Jesus's clothes, and sublimely radiant in the broad melodic sweep of the bigger, meditative choruses. Choral director James Burton had clearly worked hard to achieve a combination of containment and clarity. The new Hallé Youth Choir added a freshness to the chorales and a touching tenderness to the warm tones of James Rutherford's bass lament, "By dying has Thou conquered death?". After an account as expressive and deeply-felt as this St John, one can only hope that the bigger dramatic pictures of the St Matthew Passion (sung in German, please) and the B Minor Mass will follow soon. The Hallé's audience is hungry for more, and can't wait another century or so.

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