Historically informed: Southbank and the Barbican celebrate Easter with authentic Bach performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Soloists, Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment / Peter Whelan (director and harpsichord). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.3.2024. (CSa)

The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Laurence Cummings in the Barbican Hall © Mark Allan

Bach Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (Rejoice you hearts), BWV 66; Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden (Stay with us for evening falls), BVW 6; Oster-Oratorium (Easter Oratorio), BWV 249

Miriam Allan (soprano)
Rebecca Leggett (mezzo-soprano)
Ruairi Bowen (tenor)
Malachy Frame (baritone)

Bach: Academy of Ancient Music / Laurence Cummings (director, harpsichord and organ). Barbican Hall, London, 29.3.2024.

Bach St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) – Evangelist
George Humphreys (bass) – Christ
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Tim Mead (alto)
Mhairi Lawson (soprano)
Magid El-Bushra (alto)
Paul Hopwood (tenor)
Rodney Earl Clarke (bass)

London’s musical response to Holy Week was dominated by two small-scale, historically informed performances of choral works by Bach. On the Southbank, Olivier Award-winning Peter Whelan directed the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment from the harpsichord in a programme of Easter cantatas crowned by an uplifting account of the Easter Oratorio, while across the river in the Barbican Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music led by the scholarly Laurence Cummings, gave a meticulous and committed performance of St Matthew Passion.

The wood-panelled 900-seat auditorium of the externally brutalist Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall provided a surprisingly intimate and finely balanced acoustic for Whelan’s reduced forces: some 27 players on period instruments and a choir of 17 from whose ranks the evening’s 4 principal singers emerged and then returned. Subtle lighting bathed the black-clad musicians in an old-masterly chiaroscuro glow, lending the concert a painterly warmth and authenticity.

The first half of the evening comprised a pair of cantatas written or rather adapted by Bach specifically for Eastertide, the exuberant Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, and the deeply meditative Bleib bei uns, den es will Abend werden, BWV 6. Bach recycled some of his secular compositions into sacred music to create these two starkly contrasting works. Juxtaposed in the same programme, they illustrated the central theme of the evening: simultaneous grief and joy, aptly summarised in the title of Joanna Wyld’s programme note: ‘Salty tears and laughter’, a line she plucked from the text of a duet from the Easter Oratorio.

Whelan drove the effusive opening chorus of BVW 66 with power and vigour while the metaphorical discourse between hope (the outstanding tenor Ruairi Bowen) and fear (silver-voiced mezzo Rebecca Leggett) were buoyantly accompanied and perfectly executed on the violin by the OAE’s accomplished leader (the appropriately named Margaret Faultless). In a dramatic change of mood, Cantata BWV 6 reflects on the eventide of life and inevitability of death with contented resignation. Leggett, conveying that message to the letter, brought sweetness and gentle grace to the first chorale, while Bowen beguiled in the final aria with a performance of melancholic intensity.

OAE’s Easter Oratorio: [l-r] Rebecca Leggett (mezzo-soprano), Miriam Allan (soprano), Peter Whelan ((director and harpsichord), Malachy Frame (baritone) and Ruairi Bowen (tenor)

The all-too-infrequently performed Easter Oratorio – the centre piece of the evening – was composed in Leipzig in 1725. It tells the story – in turn exultant and sorrowful – of the first Easter Sunday. It begins with the two Marys (Magdalene and mother of Simon), who on discovering Christ’s empty sepulchre, excitedly inform the disciples of His resurrection. The opening two section Sinfonia, propelled by Whelan’s insistent beat, burst forth in a dazzling volley of valve-less Baroque trumpet (David Blackadder and his colleagues) and reverberant timpani (Adrian Bending). Then came a heart-rending Adagio in which Daniel Bates’s oboe solo sounded a pensive, plangent note followed by a restoratively merry ‘Kommt, eilet und laufet’ from the choir. The singing, overall, was glorious; never more so than in the solo arias where voices and instrumental obligatos intertwined. Dulcet-toned soprano Miriam Allan accompanied by the honeyed transverse flute of Lisa Beznosiuk wove mellifluously together in the restless ‘Seele, deine Spezereien’, while Bowen’s crystalline voice combined with soulful recorders (Sarah Humphrys and Catherine Latham) to give the anguished ‘Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer’ a piercing yet tender beauty. Rebecca Leggett displayed an intrinsic understanding of the operatic element in Bach’s oratorio, particularly her account of ‘Saget, saget mir geschwinde’ which injected a sense of almost breathless urgency, even desperation, to Magdalene’s search for the dead Jesus. A serene and richly sung recitative ‘Wir sind erfreuet’ from baritone Malachy Frame led finally to ‘Preis und Dank bleibe’, an unabashed chorus of praise and welcome for the risen Christ, triumphant Lion of Judah.

Three days after the OAE’s concert and all the rejoicing associated with Christ’s Resurrection, but chronologically out of turn, came a performance of St Matthew Passion, Bach’s spiritual journey depicting the intense human suffering of Jesus before and during his Crucifixion. In an illuminating pre-concert interview at the Barbican Centre on Good Friday, Laurence Cummings, the distinguished director of the Academy of Ancient Music, reminded us that the St Matthew Passion has been described as ‘the best opera that Bach never wrote’. Acknowledging the powerful drama of the Passion – ‘a theatre of the mind which invites the audience into the story’ – Cummings set out his vision for the current production. Quoting the late Trevor Pinnock who claimed that the work should be ‘a communal act of worship’ which established a ‘convection current between listener and performer’, Cummings promised a ‘stripped-back’ version in which two small orchestras, two organs and two four-member choirs representing ‘a constantly dysfunctional community’ would engage with and against each other in a state of dialogue and constant tension.  The two choirs comprised the eight soloists, including the storytelling Evangelist who would sing all the choruses as well.

Many of us grew up with expansive recordings of religious works by Bach, and their massive choruses and opulent sonorities can still stir the soul. Yet these can also obscure the detail of Bach’s intimate counterpoint and lack the agility and dynamic modulation of smaller scale productions. Cummings’s approach, akin to that of a restorer peeling away centuries-old layers of varnish from an eighteenth-century altarpiece, succeeded in exposing the lustrous grain of the score, and revealed many of its often, unappreciated details.

The playing and singing were dextrously supervised by Cummings, conducting from the harpsichord and organ, and was for the most part, very accomplished. Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) as the Evangelist recounted Matthew’s story with assurance, exemplary clarity of diction, and great tenderness. The purity of his upper range gave his account of Christ’s death on the cross an aching beauty. Jesus was sung by bass George Humphreys. Combining calm authority and stoicism, his warm full voice gave lines like ‘Du sagest’s’ and his final beseeching words to God: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani’, an unbearable sense of resignation. Anna Dennis’s velvet soprano enchanted in legato passages, and her extraordinary breath control and vocal dexterity made innumerable long runs appear effortless. Beauteous Softness is the title of countertenor Tim Mead’s second CD, and he brought soft beauty and spirituality to the alto parts, particularly the arias ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ and ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’.

Undoubtedly, the excellence and profound commitment of the singers and players made for an interesting, intelligent and at times, deeply moving performance. If, however, the overall objective of this production was to convey the Passion’s immense drama, it did not succeed. One could attribute this to the challenges that small ensembles face when performing in the Barbican’s 2000-seat auditorium, and to the fact that there was no separate or sufficiently large choir to emphasise in the theatrical way Bach had intended, the horrors and realities of Christ’s death. Calls from the crowd demanding crucifixion ‘Lass ihn kreuzigen’ or ‘Sein Blut komme über uns’ (Let His Blood be on us) simply lacked the requisite vehemence and bite. It could also have been due to the fact that the singers, including the Evangelist himself, remained static and distanced behind the players, never moving to the front of the platform to deliver their recitatives, solo arias and ariosos. A thoughtful and thought-provoking afternoon to be sure, but one in which the promised convection current between performer and audience never materialised.

Chris Sallon

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