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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Bach, St Matthew Passion English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Trinity Boys’ Choir, Mark Padmore (Evangelist) Dietrich Henschel (Christus) cond. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Cadogan Hall, Thursday March 10th 2005 (ME)

Cadogan Hall is simply stunning: would that the performance had matched the surroundings. This model of what a concert hall should be is set in the ‘English Baroque’ splendour of a 100 year old former Christian Science church, although a more apt name for the architecture might be ‘English Byzantine.’ Familiar to anyone who has driven round and round it fruitlessly searching for a parking space, this magnificent building is so easily accessible from Sloane Square underground that you can see it as you emerge from the station: you enter into a vast, Floral Hall – like reception area, pristinely renovated and opulently fitted; loos and cloakroom are in crypt-like chambers which are expensively done out in limestone, stainless steel and white; the 900 seat auditorium has functioning air – conditioning, blessedly tasteful décor (unlike, say, the Wigmore Hall’s ‘new’ look which comes straight from the pages of ‘Boudoir Naughties’) superbly comfortable seats and, despite its soaring triple height, the most wonderfully warm, spacious acoustic.

This latest addition to the London concert scene will be doubly welcome when the RFH closes in July, and indeed one will need some persuading to return to that shabby venue and locale – ditto the Barbican, whose refit seems to be taking forever whilst still not looking as if it’s going to achieve much: a small point (?) but Cadogan Hall is smoke free throughout, whereas, in my view astonishingly, one has to choke on tobacco fumes everywhere in the Barbican reception areas. Catch up, please, Barbican and South Bank – if you can’t make it to the 21st century at least try and get into the 20th.

You’ve guessed, of course, that this long introduction is not just because I was so taken with the hall. I have never been a big fan of JEG: of course I recognize his qualities, and applaud his advocacy of the music of Bach and Monteverdi, but in terms of performance I have always rejected his notion of ‘no soloists, ‘Concertisten’ only from the choir.’ Some would say that it’s a usefully inexpensive method of casting, others that it feeds the conductor’s ego by highlighting only him and perhaps the Evangelist and Christus – but surely the major argument against it is that its authenticity is spurious, by which I mean that whilst we all recognize that Bach would have used singers from a choir, his performances would have been given to congregations rather than audiences – and moreover, to those who, whilst often discerning and demanding, would not be used to hearing the greatest singers of the day either ‘live’ or recorded with state of the art technology. To put it bluntly, if you are accustomed to hearing Thomas Quasthoff singing the Bass arias, you do not readily endure what was on offer here.

There were positive things in this performance: whilst they may be individually weak, the Monteverdi Choir provided some stirring singing, especially in the Chorales – ‘Ich bin’s, ich sollte büssen’ was finely judged, from the dramatic opening to the dying fall of ‘Das hat verdienet meine Seel:’ the Trinity Boys’ Choir, just fifteen trebles (directed by David Swinson) covered themselves in glory, and Gardiner drew mostly fine playing from the English Baroque Soloists, with their very lush, rich sound – at least by comparison to other ‘Early Music’ bands – with especially fine obbligato work from Michael Niesemann’s Oboe di Caccia, Kati Debretzeni’s violin and the viola da gamba of Richard Campbell.

Dietrich Henschel and Mark Padmore are amongst the leading exponents of our time of the roles of Christus and Evangelist respectively, and on this occasion I warmed to both of them as never before: this of course may be due to the vast distance between the quality of their singing and that of the other soloists. This baritone and tenor are the possessors of two of the most purely lovely voices before the public today, and they are also amongst the most sensitive of interpreters. Henschel’s Christus is direct and sung with much beauty of tone, although he is no Goerne in that he does not present a deeply moving, human figure: a phrase like ‘Meine Zeit ist hier,’ for example, is given with little emphasis on the significance of what it means for Christ, and ‘Aber das ist alles geschehen’ needed more tenderness: nevertheless, this was a fine portrayal, and it was heart-warming to see him take a genuine part in the Chorales.

Padmore’s Evangelist is a fairly detached narrator, singing with tonal beauty if not very much sense of drama: a scene like the betrayal, for example, though done with great finesse, lacks any daring in the crucial phrase ‘Uns alsbald krähete der Hahn’ and ‘weinete bitterlich’ sounded simply high and sweet rather than anguished. As with Henschel, however, this is a voice in a thousand, and when he broke into ‘Die Müh ist aus…’ you were reminded of what a really great voice sounds like, after the woefully inadequate examples endured before it.

It was the same feeling when Henschel began ‘Nun ist der Herr…’ with just that one line showing what real bass singing should be like: during ‘Am Abend’ one longed to yell ‘Hey, Mr. Henschel, since you’ve now expired, how about coming down & singing ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,’? It was not to be, of course, so we had the lugubrious Matthew Brook trudging his way manfully, if hardly musically, through it. He was by no means the weakest soloist: at least he shared with Claudia Huckle the possession of a tone which at times verged on the mellifluous: the tenor Andrew Staples displayed plenty of confidence if an as yet undeveloped sense of style. It would be unkind to name names as far as the rest were concerned, but suffice to say that it has been a long time since I have had to suffer so much flat singing as I heard on this occasion: first rehearsals in undergraduate choirs spring cruelly to mind.

A magnificent hall which finally gives London the concert space it should have, and a performance of one of the greatest of all musical works which never fails to move, whatever is done to it by way of injudicious management of forces. I look forward to many more evenings at Cadogan Hall, but perhaps even more so to my next ‘Matthew Passion’ at St John’s Smith Square on the 23rd of this month.

Melanie Eskenazi



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