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Seen and Heard Concert Review


J.S. Bach, St Matthew Passion: The King’s Consort and Choir, dir. Robert King, Soloists, Choristers of Wells Cathedral, St John’s, Smith Square, March 22 2005 (ME)

This concert was part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of The King’s Consort, and also of a major European tour, taking in various venues in Spain, Switzerland and the UK, and as always with this group it offered polished, committed performance with some fine solo singing, although the latter was not of uniformly high quality. Londoners need to plan their Passions carefully during this season, and I thought I had mine pretty well sussed – this time, avoid the sanctimonious tedium of the Bach Choir, give the Mendelssohn version a miss, and go for the Monteverdi / JEG at Cadogan Hall for the venue & to see if somehow using soloists from the choir might just work (nice try) and for the truly ‘professional’ version go for the KC. It was partly the right choice, but the strengths of this performance were very similar to that of the Monteverdi, namely the Christus and Evangelist.

Peter Harvey comes from the English Choral Scholar tradition of singing, but his interpretation of Christus could not be further from that style: this is an impassioned, deeply moving realization of the role in the style of a Goerne or a Quasthoff, the moments of anger, as at the Disciples and their inability to keep watch with him, dramatic without over-statement, and the exchanges with the officials incisive. This is a beautiful voice, reminding me very much of a young Olaf Baer: the singing of such passages as ‘Trinket alle daraus’ was very fine indeed, and he actually brought tears to my eyes at ‘…dass er mir zuschickte mehr denn zwölf Legion Engel?’ (‘...that he send me more than twelve legions of angels’).

James Gilchrist is another very ‘British’ singer whose performances I have always praised, if sometimes a little warily since I have felt that his technique does not always allow him the vocal agility needed in such pieces as, say, ‘Ev’ry Valley’, but he is a very fine Evangelist: he tells the story, if at times a little overplaying it (but that’s better than the opposite) and carries us with the action, his comments gripping and poignant by turns. ‘Aber am ersten Tage der süssen Brot…’ was beautifully phrased, and he passed the crucial tests of the heady notes in ‘dankete und brach’s, und gab’s den Jüngern und sprach’ and of the Betrayal with flying colours, the latter’s ‘weinete’ forcefully onomatopoeic even if ‘bitterlich’ did not quite have the right tonal edge.

The other vocal highlight was Diana Moore’s alto arias: after ‘Du lieber Heiland du,’ I was smugly congratulating myself on the fact that ‘you can’t go wrong with real soloists’ but that feeling was to be short-lived – it lasted throughout her performance, however, since ‘Erbarme dich’ and ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ were sung with burnished tone, exact diction and poignant phrasing. Her soprano colleague, Gillian Keith, sang very sweetly but seemed under-powered, especially in ‘Aus Liebe’ – perhaps she was tired after such a demanding schedule. ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ was very finely phrased although I did wonder if anyone beyond, say, row L would have fully experienced the beauty of the tone.

It is the bass soloist who has the largest share of the singing, on this occasion given to the very handsome Canadian baritone Brett Polegato: I had not come across him before and he certainly seems to be making a mark for himself – his special love is apparently the French song recital repertoire, and I imagine that this would suit his high lyric baritone very well; this definition will surprise anyone intimate with the bass solos in the SMP, since much of the music lies very low and it requires not only a wide range but a full and rich tone, none of which this singer possesses, at least on this showing. He seems to have some feeling for the music, but I had the impression that, whilst he was aware that such lines as ‘Durch den ersten Trunk versüsset’ have special significance, he was not entirely sure what that was, and whilst he tried to give the necessary sonority and gravity to ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ he did not have the resources to do it justice.

The tenor Charles Daniels certainly did once possess the resources to give his arias the necessary drama and fluency, as one can hear on his many recordings for Hyperion, but I don’t think this evening showed him at his best, either because he was suffering from fatigue or his voice is not what it was. Both arias sounded strained, although he approached the music with his customary commitment and attention to language. Both male soloists were somewhat eclipsed by some superb singing of the smaller parts, with Ben Davies and Richard Savage deserving special mention as the High Priests – these are a couple of basses to watch.

That such a quality of singing can come ‘from the ranks’ is testament to the excellence of the Choir of the King’s Consort, who gave wonderful performances of the great Chorales, with that perfect blend of devotion and drama which can be so elusive: despite a little sagging of the line at the end of ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross’ the choir’s attack was incisive, phrasing rounded and tone ideal, and the dramatic outbursts such as ‘Herr, bin ich’s?’ were gripping without melodrama. The eloquent ripieno choir came from Wells Cathedral, and numbered a few girls amongst its ranks. The orchestral playing was at a level to match the choral singing: the KC always has a brightness of sound and a quality of performance that is polished yet not too suave, and this was no exception, with especially noteworthy playing from Cassandra Luckhardt’s viola da gamba, Christine Sticher’s double bass and the oboes of Alexandra Bellamy and Molly Marsh.

No setting seems more appropriate to Bach than the incomparable interior of St John’s Smith Square, so it was with some sorrow that I realized that this would probably be the KC’s last large-scale concert here, since from next season they will perform in the gloriously restored, air-conditioned surroundings of Cadogan Hall: I look forward to many great concerts there but hope that they will still find it possible to visit St John’s, if only for the more intimate works in the repertoire.

Melanie Eskenazi



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