Classical: Dramatic moments to stir the soul
St Matthew Passion, St George's, Hanover Square, London
Tuesday 14 April 1998
Does that matter? Put a Renaissance choral Mass in the context of the full ritual text, plus relevant motets, and one's understanding of the music - and of the relation between music and words - is transformed. What St George's offered by way of "context" was relatively minimal: three hymns, a motet and a short sermon - and, of course opening and closing prayers. Thank heaven for small mercies, one might say. Surely nearly four hours in an uncomfortable wooden box pew is enough context for anyone.
We were not invited to join in with Bach's chorales, which is, apparently, what they were written for. So no marks for historical verity there - but then does one really want Bach's gorgeous harmonies swamped by precarious congregational participation? Not in this case, certainly. The performance was worth savouring for its own sake. Tenor Roger Covey-Crump (Evangelist) and conductor Denys Darlow kept the pace moving without sounding hurried.
If the period instrument movement has done nothing else in Bach's Passions, it has restored life to the narratives, so that one hears not a set of static tableaux but an unfolding drama with devotional asides from choir and soloists. Here this reached its climax as music and words were heightened by a touch of traditional Good Friday ritual. As the Evangelist described the moment of Jesus's death, the candle on the High Altar was extinguished. This moment of theatre was the more telling for its simplicity: no High Church camp, no Evangelical emotionalism.
Musically, though, this would have been a fine performance without such additions. The choral and orchestral backbone were supplied excellently by the London Handel Choir and Orchestra. Even now, when Baroque instruments are familiar, a particular colour can be a refreshing surprise: the soft, alluring wooden flute, or the fruity oboe da caccia - not a polished sound, but so full of character. The use of mostly girls for the "Soprano in ripieno" choir might have set the good burghers of Bach's Leipzig muttering darkly, but the effect in the opening chorus, as they chimed in from the gallery, was spine-tingling.
With all this went solo singing which was never less than good, and often exceptional. Soprano Joanne Lunn achieved an Emma Kirkby-like purity with solid vocal power. Charles Daniel, the lyrical tenor, had some soul-stirring moments in his arias "I would then stay" and "Forbear, forbear!" - lovely tone and full of feeling. (Fortunately the English translation of the original German text was unusually effective.) As for Jesus himself, as soon as bass James Rutherford opened his mouth one had the feeling that everything was going to be all right: the kind of sound, with an unaffected dignity, that rivets you to your seat.
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