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PROMS 2002

PROM 21: Bach, ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday August 4th. (ME)


This performance was ‘One of Trevor Pinnock’s final collaborations as director of the English Concert,’ since he is shortly to hand over responsibility for the artistic direction of the orchestra which he founded in 1973 to the violinist Andrew Manze, although he will return as a guest conductor. One takes this ensemble so much for granted that it is difficult to imagine musical life without it, and this evening gave an apt demonstration of all that this, surely the finest baroque orchestra in Europe, stands for. Pinnock directed a performance of exciting drama, exquisite subtlety and frank devotion, where the playing frequently touched heights which one is only rarely privileged enough to encounter. Moments such as the halo of strings which surround Christ’s arioso passages, the continuo of the Bass arias and the highly charged sweep of strings which ushers in the final chorale, were as vividly characterized as I have ever heard, and the oboe, flute and ‘cello passages were superbly taken by Katharina Spreckelsen, Lisa Beznosiuk and Jane Coe.

The opening chorus was a little tentative, but by ‘Herzliebster Jesu’ the ECC were singing with superb attack, wonderful shading and the sharpest diction I’ve heard from an English group. ‘Erkenne mich, mein Hüter’ and ‘Ich will hier bei dir stehen’ were taken very slowly and reverently, and ‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ was simply stunning in its calm, measured unity and directness. The singing of the choristers of Southwark cathedral, and more significantly, that of some of the soloists, however, was not consistently on this level.

I have yet to hear a tenor who sings the Evangelist with greater emotional commitment, fluency of phrasing, precision of diction and authority of declamation than John Mark Ainsley. He is the pick of today’s Evangelists not only for these qualities but for his unique understanding of that blend of slight theatricality and Lutheran sermonizing which is essential if the narrative is to have its full force. If your taste in Evangelists is mainly for the beautifully toned timbre or the ragged, ‘I’ve-just-read-this’ reportage, then Ainsley may not please you throughout, since he is not a man to balk at sacrificing a little tonal beauty in order to convey the full import of a line, and he never gives you anything as shabby as overt theatrics; it is honesty above all which characterizes this Evangelist, coupled with a feeling for the nuance of individual words and phrases which bring tears to the eyes. Two examples must suffice: in the Arrest of Jesus, the narrator repeats Judas’ words to the multitude; ‘Welchen ich küssen werde, der ist’s, den greifet’ and he then notes ‘Und küssete ihn.’ - Ainsley conveyed the cruelty of the action with just the one word, ‘greifet,’ and he made you feel the import of the kiss with an ironic tenderness and sweetness in his tone: in the narrative of Peter’s betrayal, the Evangelist’s ‘krähete’ was superbly onomatopoeic, and at the challenging melismata of ‘weinete bitterlich’ he coloured the words with his characteristic blend of warm intimacy and thrilling drama. A commanding performance.

Having Heard Michael Volle’s singing of the Bass arias on the Ozawa recording (in which Ainsley is the matchless Evangelist and Thomas Quasthoff the very moving Christus) I was not prepared for the nobility and grandeur of his singing; here is a bass infinitely more suited to Christus than the arias. The word ‘leonine’ might almost have been invented for Mr. Volle, since he is an exceptionally striking figure, making his portrayal of Christ as a vulnerable, intensely human figure all the more compelling. He sang the wonderful arioso passage beginning ‘Trinket alle daraus’ with skilful management of legato and noble, eloquent phrasing, and his characterization was vivid and sensitive throughout, nowhere more so than in ‘Stecke dein Schwert’ where he conveyed all of Christ’s dignity and certitude.

Carolyn Samson is a soprano of exceptional gifts; not only is her voice warmly distinctive but her performance conveys none of the anxiety which a young singer might experience in this difficult music, giving us instead a sense of sheer enjoyment in every line; ‘Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt’ revealed a genuine sense of the import of the words, superb phrasing and excellent projection, and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ was the focal point which it should be but so often is not.

Very little of the rest of the solo singing reached the levels of these three, although Catherine Wyn Rogers, replacing Robin Blaze at short notice, acquitted herself well in ‘Können Tranen meiner Wangen.’ The young German baritone Stephan Loges has had a full calendar since winning the Wigmore Hall’s Song Competition in 1999, and he remains promising although possessing a voice of no very special distinction; he sings accurately and musically but with a rather dry tone – ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’ was probably his best moment, with its well projected words and confident phrasing. Susan Gritton had very little to do, and did it competently, and the same word might be applied to the bass Brindley Sherratt, who made little of ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.’ The tenor Werner Güra simply should not have been standing on the same platform as John Mark Ainsley, since his anxious, dry, undistinguished singing was not at even an acceptable level, and it is mystifying to discover that he has an emergent version of ‘Dichterliebe’ when the latter tenor has yet to be invited to record it.

The closing moments of ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,’ performed with moving grace, were a fitting conclusion to this culmination of the English Concert’s six-year project focusing of the major religious works of the 18th century.

I cannot conclude without referring to an unfortunate piece of mismanagement by the RAH: ‘Latecomers will not be admitted until a suitable break in the performance,’ the tickets proclaim; precisely at which briefing, one cannot help wondering, was it decided by the Hall’s management that the beginning of the central moment in Part One of the ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ the moving narrative of the arrangements for the Last Supper, constituted a ‘suitable break?’ Here we had the Evangelist telling the story as though he really were Matthew, and Christus intoning his instructions to the Disciples – and with what were they favoured – the rapt silence which should accompany such words in such performances? Why, no – at a concerted entry, every door in the hall opened to admit a gaggle of latecomers at each, who then proceeded to arrange themselves noisily, and in the case of the eight idiots near to us, to argue as to who was sitting where, so we heard ‘Let me get past you! and ‘Actually, I think I’m in Row 8’ as accompaniment to the Evangelist’s narrative. For once, I was rendered speechless with dismay and could only shake my head, an action duplicated with equal disbelief on the platform.



Melanie Eskenazi


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