Gardiner Has a Mission, Obsession and Passion


 Bach: The English Baroque Soloists, The Monteverdi Choir, Luzerner Sängerknaben (chorusmaster Eberhard Rex), Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Stephan Loges (Jesus), Hannah Morrison (soprano), Eleanor Minney (alto), Reginald Mobley (alto), Alex Ashworth (bass), Nicholas Mogg (bass), Ashley Riches (bass), Jonathan Sells (bass) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 17.3.2016. (JR)

Bach: St. Matthew Passion

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, widely regarded as the current top Bach specialist, clearly has a mission and even admits to having a Bach obsession. He is touring Europe with his choir and orchestra to showcase the St. Matthew Passion, even though I understand his penchant is more for the tauter St. John Passion. The tour locations and dates are set out below at the foot of this review.

The Bach Passions are – it has to be said – not everyone’s musical cup of tea, in a few parts more like the sour wine given to Christ on the cross. It consists of a series of factual recitatives, occasionally followed by some achingly beautiful arias, many fine chorales for the choir (which all sound remarkably similar) and splendid lengthy opening and closing arias for the chorus. There are also some zingy interjections from the chorus in between, such as in “Donner und Blitzen”. If you don’t understand German, it can be hard work. If you don’t accept the doctrine, it can even be a mite unpalatable. It’s over three hours long and it can drag, especially if the conductor (as here) chooses to do all the repeats. Having said all that, the work definitely exudes a mythical power and one does not need to be religious to admire the music and Bach’s supreme craftsmanship. I have only really come to this work in later life. I sang the St. John Passion at University and now find I will be singing the St. Matthew Passion in the amateur chorus (Gemischter Chor Zürich) with the Tonhalle Orchestra over Easter.  I have therefore learned to really appreciate and admire the work from my own choir’s intensive rehearsals over a period of many months and have also been listening intently to Gardiner’s splendid 1989 recording (with his usual forces, recorded at the Snape Maltings) and so was very keen to hear the work live a few days before “my” concert.

Sadly I did not manage to catch one of the Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars performances of the work but can imagine being thankful for and intrigued by some added action giving, no doubt, an extra dimension. In Gardiner’s performance, it’s all about the music without (virtually) any visual distractions.

Gardiner’s award-winning recording on Archiv Production (Deutsche Grammophon) has the benefit of starry soloists, Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the Evangelist, Barbara Bonney, Anne Sofie von Otter, Olaf Bär to name but a few. With the smaller acoustic and top flight soloists, Gardiner had his own tough act to follow in Lucerne.

As the English Baroque Soloists came out onto the stage, one marvelled at the strange shapes of the woodwind, many players carrying a number of instruments. Then came the relatively small chorus, 10 sopranos, 6 altos, 6 tenors and 6 basses. From these ranks Gardiner drew some of his soloists. As each singer seemed well able to sing the solo parts, almost interchangeably, the “massed ranks” managed to make the sound of a much larger chorus, but with the added benefit of clarity and precision. Note: at the International Bachfest in Schaffhausen in May Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort will perform the same work – with a chorus of eight!

Not for a moment did I need to think of judiciousness of either tempi or dynamics; Gardiner has the music in his blood, and his love of the work is evident in his body language. He swayed gently with the music, his large hands flowing, looking resplendent in a very dark green velvet tunic.

If I have niggles, they are truly insignificant in what was, overall, a wondrous performance. Yes, I’d rather have big name soloists who might bring an added sophistication to the solo arias, but that’s not what the work is about. Yes, I’d rather have German singers throughout as mother-tongue Germans can hear that most of the singers are not native speakers, though their level of German diction is higher than many Swiss! The umlaut (as in “Tränen”) is difficult for the British, and the sound ”ch” (as in “ich”), though most Germans struggle with “the”. The chorus sang without the safety net of a score which meant that, to a man/woman, they never took their eyes off their conductor. The entries were consequently spot-on, even the difficult “wohin?” and “wo” interjections.

The Chorales were all beautifully dynamically controlled, perhaps there could have been a greater feeling on occasion that the singers really knew what the words meant (there are, I’ll admit, some fairly obsolete German words in there, such as “schipferet”). I particularly liked the “Was mein Gott will” chorale.

The opening and closing choruses were moving, especially the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” where Padmore and Loges joined the chorus for extra weight.

Mark Padmore just couldn’t be a better Evangelist, he lives the part. One Swiss critic was slightly disturbed by the fact that a German, Stephen Loges, sang the part of Jesus in what he felt was a very British “Passion”. I was unconcerned; he sang the role well, even if his voice lacks individuality. (Gardiner also used a German in his recording, Andreas Schmidt – perhaps this serves to differentiate Jesus from the hoi polloi).

The women soloists were all fine, especially Hannah Morrison. The soloists were usually accompanied by solo instrumentalists, who stood for their immaculate virtuoso contributions, and also played without a score. The viola da gamba player, in particular, was mesmerizing in the “Geduld” aria. One soon forgot one was listening to a period orchestra, these were players at the top of their game. On each side was a small organ, one ornate and baroque, the other modern, at which the organists stood.

Gardiner employed a male alto for one or two arias and I must say I was not enamoured by the timbre of the voice.

The Luzerner Sängerknaben, about a dozen of them, sang beautifully, forcefully and in tune – which is all that’s really required of them. Their Zurich counterparts singing the Passion next week in the Tonhalle have a hard act to follow.

At the end Gardiner held his hands aloft for as long as he could but eventually remembered we had trains to catch. Applause seemed wrong after so mighty and majestic a work, just a “thank you so much” would have sufficed.

Finally, a cavil at management: the concert started at 7.30 p.m. and ended, after a generous interval, at 10.45 p.m. As next day was a working day, and many Festival visitors come in from other Swiss towns (Basel, Zurich in particular) this had many scurrying for their coats and trains before the applause had even started. Could such lengthy concerts please start at 7 or even better 6.30.

John Rhodes

Tour of Europe: with Mark Padmore as Evangelist
March 11 Valencia
March 13 Pamplona
March 15 Barcelona
March 17 Lucerne
March 22 Amsterdam
March 23 Brussels
March 25 Paris
March 26 London

June: with James Gilchrist as the Evangelist

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Are you a German native? I am, and on top a linguist, and I marveled at the clear, accent free pronunciation of the singers. Also, in your article, you mention the old fashioned word “schipferet”, but there is no such word. It is “schimpfieret” and they pronounced it immaculately. And scrambling for the coats? If you come to a concert of this type you better plan ahead. I am sure if the concert had started at the time you are suggesting people would complain that they cannot get off work so early

    • John Rhodes says:

      Hi Anonymous
      Yes I’m a German native (despite the English name) so we must beg to differ, though I agree entirely with you that the choir’s accent was excellent. I made a slip on the word “schimpfieret”, you are quite right, should have checked my score. On concert start times, you can’t win: start early on a weekday and some people will complain, finish towards eleven and others will complain. I did plan ahead but not everyone knew the concert would go on for so long.

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