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S & H Concert Review

J.S. Bach ‘St. Matthew Passion’ London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, Royal Festival Hall, January 26th 2003. (ME)


Everyone has their own notion of how each of the great masterpieces should be given, and it is quite possible that there were people who came away enthralled after Sunday’s performance, but for me it was one of the most uninvolving evenings I have ever spent in the concert hall. This was a mostly genteel, precise reading, infused with very little of the ardour which I expect from this conductor, and the playing of the LPO was well below their wonted standard, especially in the string sections. One could only surmise lack of rehearsal time with the conductor.

The all- male gathering of the forces of choirs from King’s College, Cambridge, Christ Church, Oxford and the Trebles and Altos from Eton College Chapel sounded like an enticing prospect, but in the event these, too, seemed muted, with ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter’ lacking the required arresting quality and even ‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ failing to move. Things were not much better on the soloist front, with an inexplicably strident Evangelist (Kurt Azesberger) who fell short of just about every high note during some recitatives, and neglected the expected drama at such moments as ‘krähete.’ As for the narrative about Peter’s betrayal and weeping, it is meant to make us cry, but not with pain. The other tenor, Werner Güra, was far more successful in his arias; he has clearly been working on them since I heard him give a rather lacklustre rendition at the Proms, and although I still consider all the hype about him to be overdone, he certainly made one breathe a sigh of relief when he launched into ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen,’ managing to inject some sorely needed drama and emotion into the proceedings, not to mention a degree of technical assurance.

It is the bass who has the most lengthy assignment of solo singing in this work, and Christopher Maltman’s reading was certainly individual; he takes almost as many emotional and interpretative liberties as Thomas Quasthoff, especially in ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,’ but did not have the intuitive direction of an Andras Schiff to guide and inspire him sympathetically as Quasthoff did on the last occasion when I heard him, and he was rather at sea on more than one occasion. He was not helped by some woefully inept Viola da Gamba playing during ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’ and in general this was not one of his best performances, although I did scribble the word ‘Endlich!’ beside ‘Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt,’ since here, finally, we had a line delivered with tenderness and exactitude, something for which all the other singers conspicuously kept us waiting.

The Christus of Hanno Muller-Brachmann was youthfully eager and capable of involving his hearers in his recitatives, although his tone is somewhat dry at present. I found the contralto Anna Larsson unmoving in her arias, but in this I do admit to a prejudice in favour of a male alto for such music as ‘Erbarme Dich.’ Inger Dam-Jensen sang her music tastefully and sweetly, and that was really about the sum of this whole evening – so many wondrous moments went for nothing that it was like hearing the work through a sheet of gauze. If I lived in an obscure corner of the country I might value such performances, but for a major event in one of the capital’s leading concert halls, I expect a higher level of performance than this.


Melanie Eskenazi

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