The St John Passion at Kings Place

19/03/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Soloists, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, 16.3.2013 (MB)

St John Passion, BWV 245
Evangelist: John Mark Ainsley
Christus: Roland Wood
Malin Christensson (soprano)
Iestyn Davies (alto)
Andrew Tortise (tenor)
David Stout (Pilate/bass)

I hope readers will forgive me if I make this review relatively brief, the reason being that events outside the control of the performers, or indeed the hall, made it rather difficult to come to a conventional judgement concerning the performance. A good part of the second part fell under the shadow of an audience member apparently losing consciousness, collapsing, and receiving medical treatment, most of that going on, immediately next to my seat, whilst the performance continued. I mention that not to over-dramatise, and certainly not in any sense to complain, my thoughts being very much with the man concerned, but simply to explain why inevitably, I am not in the best position to go into great detail.

This was the first time I had heard the Aurora Orchestra in Baroque repertoire, though I have had quite a bit of Mozart from them and from Nicholas Collon. The swift tempo for the great opening chorus had me worried, as did the relative reticence of the strings, but my fears were confounded; tempi were, at least by present-day standards, remarkably unobjectionable, and more than that well-chosen. Nor was there for the most part a lack of flexibility such as one all too often hears now in this repertoire. The orchestra was very small (strings 4.4.3.2.1) – though doubtless the ayatollahs of one-to-a-part ‘authenticity’ would dissent – but Hall One at Kings Place is not a large space, and for the most part, it was only in making mental comparisons with great recorded performances such as those by Gunther Ramin, Eugen Jochum, and Richter that one keenly felt the loss. Likewise, though warmer string tone would at times have been desirable, there was commendably little of the hair-shirt to the performance. I am having to rely on the evidence of my ears, but it sounded to me as though some at least, perhaps all, of the violins were employing gut strings. Vibrato was mercifully not absent – a noteworthy feature in our Alice in Wonderland world of Bach performance. The woodwind were especially fine, every obbligato solo assumed with excellence of technique and feeling. Oliver Coates’s cello stood out from the continuo group and indeed as a superlative obbligato instrument.

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, offered fine performances, by turn angry and devotional, as text and role required. The turba choruses were vivid, the chorales heartfelt but clear-eyed. Diction, moreover, was thoroughly excellent. The tiny part of the Maid, taken by one of the choir members, was unfortunate in intonation, but otherwise there was little about which anyone might reasonably complain. John Mark Ainsley occasionally took his Evangelist to the limit of what might be desirable in terms of hectoring, but there was no doubting his commitment and understanding and, so long as one did not insist upon the mellifluous tones of an Ernst Haefliger, much by which to be moved. Roland Wood’s Christus was less individual, but well delivered, and that may indeed have been the point. He is not, after all, a ‘character’ in the conventional sense. All of the other soloists shone, Malin Christensson striking a fine balance between an almost operatic beauty of tone and attention to the text, likewise Iestyn Davies, the ‘operatic’ quality of whose outburst in the extraordinary ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ could hardly have been more arresting. (If I still find a counter-tenor more apt for Handel than Bach, still preferring the warmth of a mezzo or contralto, then that is arguably just a personal matter.) Andrew Tortise offered plangency and, again, detailed attention to the text, whilst David Stout’s baritone suggested a consolation consonant with that offered by the Aurora woodwind.

That, then, is indicative of my experience, compromised though it was by events. It certainly augurs well for a December Aurora/Clare Mass in B minor. I wish, however, that the Kings Place website had not described the work as ‘Bach’s iconic St John Passion’. It is surely now time that that much-abused word be proscribed until further notice, if only so that it might regain a little meaning.

Mark Berry

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