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S & H Concert Review

Bach St Matthew Passion, The Bach Choir, Florilegium, Conductor: David Hill. Royal Festival Hall, Sunday 6th April 2003 (ME)


Having finally faced the fact that my Catholicism was lapsed, my mother extracted from me the promise that I would never fail to do my Easter Duty – that is, attend confession and church once a year at Easter time, as an insurance against the flames of Hell. Of course, I haven’t kept the promise, in common with thousands of others, but on Sunday at the RFH I felt as though I was amongst many of those who were doing just that, or rather thought they were, putting themselves through a day of Bach in English being about as near as any of them wanted to get to purging their guilt.

These performances by The Bach Choir are of course well known for their atmosphere of piety: the programme tells us that ‘Due to the nature of this work, The Bach Choir requests that there should be NO APPLAUSE before, during or after the performance. If you would like to show your appreciation, you are invited to stand at the end of the performance.’ Or, in other words, ‘This piece is about God so for some reason you shouldn’t clap, but do please give us a standing ovation at the end.’ To me, nothing could be more daft: my love for Bach’s music does almost approach worship, but there are basically two ways of performing the Passions – either you see them as religious works, in which case you do them in a church with small forces, applause being naturally inappropriate, or you see them as semi-dramatic works, in which case you do them in a concert hall with whatever size of forces is at your command, and you let the audience receive them as concert audiences normally do.

Bach’s music is for everyone, and we do not need to believe in the story to be deeply moved by it, but in this middleweight, careful performance that kind of emotion was in short supply. The finest singing, appropriately, came from the choir itself, supplemented by representatives of no fewer than seven schools in the Ripieno Chorus: David Hill’s direction ensured that the attack on first lines was always clean, the diction exemplary and the balance between the voices ideal, but there was very little sense of the emotional weight of the work – I have seldom been left so unmoved by ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross’ and ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’ but this was a reaction, or rather lack of it, which I had throughout, stemming at least partly from the translation. I seem to recall the latter chorale being translated as ‘In tears of grief, dear Lord, we greet you’ for past performances, but here we got ‘We bow our heads in tears and sorrow’ – a bit limp to say the least, but this was nothing compared to what the soloists had to sing. I won’t labour this point, suffice to say that translating ‘Und sie wurden sehr betrübt’ as ‘They had indignation’ and ‘Und er nahm den Kelch, und dankete, gab ihnen den und sprach – Trinket alle daraus…’ as ‘And he took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them saying – Drink ye all of it…’ could hardly be described as graceful.

The story depends upon the evangelist who narrates it, and Christopher Gillet was a worthy, careful storyteller who introduced us to some of the drama without ever moving as the greatest evangelists can. The rôle of Christ was nobly taken at short notice by Roderick Earle, replacing Jonathan Best and singing with confidence and perception. The contralto Lynette Alcantara was another stand-in, this time for Catherine Wyn-Rogers but hers was a less happy performance, seeming ill at ease and never really getting to grips with the demanding arias.

Lynne Dawson was the very experienced soprano, able to make the words tell in her recitatives but seeming a little wayward in some of the arias, especially ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz’. Timothy Robinson sang the tenor arias sweetly, if rather nervously, and Neal Davies was highly dramatic as the High Priest and sang the bass arias with a real sense of involvement. ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ found him a little strained, but the preceding recitative was beautifully phrased, and he succeeded in moving me with the quality of his intonation at ‘Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt’.

The playing was exemplary throughout, with some especially fine work from the oboes of the first orchestra and violins of the second (Matthew Truscott the superb soloist in ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder) and the continuo was neatly supportive and thankfully never sought to draw undo attention to itself. That phrase could well stand for the whole event – well prepared and worthy rather than uplifting.

Melanie Eskenazi



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