Proms: The sound of silence

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The Independent Culture
WHATEVER ARTISTIC heights this year's Promenade Concerts have reached, or will reach, are unlikely to level with Sunday night's performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion under Philippe Herreweghe. Past encounters with period instruments at the Royal Albert Hall have tended to under- represent the full flavour of Bach's instrumental writing, but the Orchestra of Collegium Vocale somehow managed to project a strong-enough pooled tone to match the vital, well drilled Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino Chorus.

The lead soloists varied from good to superb, with bass Franz Josef Selig reaching the farthest interpretative peaks towards the end of Part One where Jesus, after urging non-violence, recalls sitting daily, "teaching in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me".

Selig's expressive singing and tempered emotion (subtly reminiscent of Hans Hotter in his prime) matched Philippe Herreweghe's control of the preceding choral drama, with its antiphonal cries of "destroy", "ruin", "swallow up", etc. Herreweghe's overall tempi were swift, his phrasing less keenly inflected than some, but sensitively moulded.

More crucial still was his rhetorical use of silence, the way he gauged the length of a rest - say, between Jesus's death and the following Chorale "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden".

A judiciously paced opening chorus blended answering choirs with a centre- placed (and relatively under-powered) boys' choir. Word painting took a subtle lead in certain of the chorales and Ian Bostridge proved a more confident, less boyish Evangelist than in his Easter St John Passion. He also proved a somewhat stronger vocal presence than the otherwise excellent tenor Werner Gura, who tackled the solo arias. Next to Selig, Bostridge gave the most perceptive of the evening's vocal performances.

Soprano Sibylia Rubens was best in long-breathed, florid phrases, though she made rather heavy weather of the sublime aria "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben".

Dietrich Henschel, on the other hand, made a vigorous display of "Gebt mir meinen" (with keen solo fiddle work from Alessandro Moccia), but the star of the show - at least as far as the audience was concerned - was counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, whose limpid, creamy-toned singing prompted an audible murmur of approval after "Erbarme dich". No singer in recent years has done more than Scholl to widen the audience catchment for early music and, when the evening's performance drew to a close, it was his contributions that inspired the loudest of the cheers.

Scholl's agility and smoothness of timbre silence criticism, though he still falls a little short of the depth needed to realise the full expressive potential in Bach's writing.

Herreweghe's St Matthew Passion was not without minor flaws (woodwind chords were on occasion less than precise) but, viewed overall, it was an impressive achievement. The house was packed virtually to capacity and yet, for most of the evening, they sat - or stood - on the edge of a breath, an encouraging sign that even now, in an age of crass "dumbing down", the greatest musical statement in the canon of Western art still holds its power to please or humble the crowd.