Thursday, 28 August 2008

Prom 51: Passion with a Mission

There was something uncomfortable about the first 10 to 15 minutes of Gardiner’s St John’s Passion as though neither orchestra nor alto and soprano could control their tone.

Early instrument ensembles, in my experience, often seem to start shaky as though they need a little more use and room temperature to bed down or at least respond with more immediacy to their players’ will. I’d not met it with voices before. Perhaps it was empathy!

For empathy was key to the performance as orchestra and particularly chorus were one with their conductor.

The Hall was full which is always a good cushion to back on when your musical legs are about to give way. Prommers are patient and very understanding. So, notwithstanding the alto’s under-performance in his first aria and the soprano’s distraction in hers, we winced and waited for the dust to settle. The good news is that it did. Magnificently!

Marc Padmore’s tenor voice was so utterly pure and high, it soared clean and filled the hall with melancholia. The tale he was telling was tragic and he expressed that tragedy with the emphasis it deserved.

The orchestra was almost too good for some of its soloists (bar Padmore). It is a brilliant assembly of performers with a ruthless driver uncompromisingly reaching towards an understanding of the passion according to St Gardiner.

As the instruments warmed up so too the voices and synergy was complete. Jesus spat the German consonants with poignancy to denounce injustice; the chorus rose louder as the evening progressed, alternating between its 2 role of nemesis and catharsis. Nasty, cruel and superbly violent in the crowd scenes particularly where the jews were baying for Jesus’ blood on the one hand and gentle soft almost humble in the “lesson” part of their role.

The road to redemption is in the understanding of the morality of the tale not so much the miracle of it, but what it meant to achieve.

The chorus made that distinction abundantly clear.

Then came one of the unexpected enchantments of the evening: the second tenor in the aria “Erwage, wie sein...” with a voice which seemed to issue from the back of his throat with guttural long sustained notes punctuated by those expressive German consonants.

By then Gardiner’s reading was becoming clear to his audience. This was going to be a piece of patience and slowness where contemplation is in order and rushing only allowed in the arias and the chorus as it reached a frenzied fury of sound and chilled beauty in the one-word musical line “Kreuzige!” "Crucify!"

Our journey of discovery of sound effectiveness was now at its climax as Gardiner continued his lesson in timing and dramatic control where our patience throughout the long series of uneventful pieces (which might have induced stupor) was rewarded with bravura of voice and instrument.

The alto and soprano were now note perfect, sure of themselves, their voice pairing exquisitely with their alloted solo instrument; cello for the alto, oboe for the soprano and chorus for the bass, in slow contemplative heightened lyricism. A supreme reflection on the events which had been related to us.

The last chorus rippled its chorale like pearls of water, once again soft and slow but concluded in prayer, a tone reminiscent of a church congregation.

This was a thoughtful, intelligent and well-expressed interpretation by a band of assured performers working together in a complex network and controlling them with unflinching conviction, John Elliot Gardiner reading his lesson to us with uncompromising integrity. This was Lutheran Bach whose raison d’être was to guide his listener to a state of grace, in humility and awe at the tragedy of the story of the crucifixion. Even a non-believer such as I could not help but be inspired!

(Zeina Trewin)

RAH Live

Bach: St John Passion; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, cond. John Eliot Gardiner

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