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S & H Concert Review

Bach, ‘St Matthew Passion’ LSO / Christophers: John Mark Ainsley (Evangelist) Stephen Roberts (Christus): soloists. Barbican Hall, 18th April 2004 (ME)


‘Wow! ‘ - said one of this evening’s participants when, nearly a year ago, I referred to the other singers scheduled for this event – ‘… that is going to be one hot concert!’ So it proved, but not in the sense he had meant: the heat was decidedly of the ‘under the collar’ kind, since not only the conductor but also two of the major singers had to drop out: not only this, but one of their replacements also had to withdraw, thus leaving the plucky but unfortunate Bass who had been expecting to sing just the small parts of High Priest / Pilate and Judas, to carry the burden of the Bass arias and all the Bass roles. Just to make things really nail-biting, he, too, was ill and had to leave the platform in mid-aria, the Alto soloist was clearly not as familiar with the part as might be ideal, and the Tenor soloist was far from being in his best voice…. this left the Evangelist to carry the day, which he did.

The combination of Matthias Goerne as Christus, Ainsley as Evangelist and René Pape as bass soloist was perhaps too glorious to happen: certainly, there is no single recording which can match such a happy choice, so the sense of frustration at a less than ideal performance is hardly a new one. This work might not be seen as comfortable territory for the LSO, although the evening’s conductor, Harry Christophers, certainly has plenty of solid Bach experience, and the orchestra acquitted itself well without ever showing that special quality which of late has so distinguished the LSO Mahler and Stravinsky, in particular – but how could anyone hope to shine given that so many disasters had occurred, and were occurring, around them? There was certainly some wonderful solo work, most especially by the flutes, the continuo ‘cellos and the co-leader’s accompanying of ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder’ and whilst the strings did not quite have that golden tone needed at the music surrounding Christus’ arioso passages they did provide a much-needed reliable background for the singing.

It would be unfair to compare Stephen Roberts to Matthias Goerne, especially on the basis of a short-notice replacement, and in fact Roberts gave us a very genuine, forthright Christus, quite youthful in tone if not demeanour, and his diction was eminently clear – his best moments came in the recitative rather than arioso, with lines such as ‘…dass erfüllet wurden die Schriften der Propheten’ being declaimed with ringing confidence. It is confidence which especially delineates Ainsley’s Evangelist, and he needed every bit of it here: this is of course the part which binds the work, but the singer does not often have to provide a comforting sense of stability in the face of minor dramas all around him: he took it all nobly, so much so that just after the ‘fall’ of yet another soloist, he remained unperturbed when the organist seemed to want to guide him into the wrong recitative. Strolling up to that music stand must have felt at times like going to the scaffold, but his beautiful tone, unerring sense of pacing, aptly judged drama and simply moving interpretation remained as close to the ideal Evangelist as ever, with his crispness, his ‘bounce’ in the tone at ‘Sie sprachen aber’ being as noteworthy as his incomparable pathos at the narrative of Peter’s denial – no other Evangelist around today makes more of phrases like ‘krähete’ and ‘weinete bitterlich’ or makes you feel more involved in the narrative.

The Dutch singer Bas Ramselaar had probably been expecting to introduce his beautiful bass-baritone voice to a large London audience with the ideal vehicle of the smaller Bass roles, but in the event he had to carry the lot, and did so in a manner which one can only call near-heroic. It was clear from ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ that his legato line either needed some work or was affected by indisposition, but what was also obvious was that this is a singer for whom words really do mean something, and his performance of the lines ‘Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt’ and ‘Durch den ersten Trunk versüsset’ whilst not musically perfect was finely nuanced in the verbal sense. His indisposition worsened as the evening progressed and he finally had to leave the platform halfway through ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz,’ with Christophers saving the situation by quietly singing the final bars in his place.

The ensuing minutes were fascinating for all concerned, especially the audience: it was clear that uppermost in all minds was, what’s going to happen with the ‘killer’ Bass recitative and aria, ‘Am Abend’ and ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ – not to mention ‘Nun ist der Herr…’? since the Christus had already, quite understandably, indicated that he wasn’t prepared to take over. I had visions of the cry ‘Is there a Bass in the house?’ being heard (in fact I had seen Jonathan Lemalu at the interval and wondered if he might step up…) – meanwhile the thoughts ‘Oh s***, how low is ‘begraben?’ Too bloody low….’ were written on Ainsley’s face almost as clearly as if they’d been projected there….in the event, Ramselaar valiantly returned, much to the relief of all, and performed the music with all the commitment and fervour at his disposal: he even managed to sing quite movingly at ‘o köstlich’s Angedenken!’ What a brick, as they used to say at school…

Angelika Kirchschlager was the other big ‘draw’ as far as I was concerned, although I still have reservations about her Bach singing: in the event, her lovely tone, absolute seriousness of purpose and truly noble phrasing compensated for a certain feeling of lack of intimacy with the music, and she sang ‘Ach, Golgotha’ most movingly. The soprano Malin Hartelius improved as the evening progressed: after her first aria I felt that the most suitable music for her to sing would be ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina!’ but she gave an affecting account of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.’ Kenneth Tarver did what he could with the tenor arias but he was clearly not at his best.

The London Symphony Chorus and Finchley Children’s music group made up a very large body of singers, trained by Joseph Cullen to provide a highly dramatic, often very contrasting interpretation: Christophers too seemed to encourage a very high proportion of variations in dynamics throughout the evening, especially at moments such as ‘Ich bin’s, Ich sollte büssen’ although the huge sound was admirably scaled down for a quietly intimate ‘Du edles Angesichte.’ Not exactly an evening to treasure, then – more one to recover from, although the authoritative Evangelist offered much consolation, as is right from one who relates the words of the Disciple.

Melanie Eskenazi


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