Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Barbican review *****

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (conductor), Peter Sellars (director) 

Barbican Hall, 23rd May 2019

Much taken with our last exposure to Peter Sellars distinctive way with dramatising the choral after the OAE St John Passion at the Festival Hall last month, BUD and I set off, fuelled as usual by an excellent carb repast from Bad Egg, to hear and see this version of Lasso’s masterpiece on the Barbican stage.

Now this was an altogether different experience from the Bach. (unfortunately I missed Mr Sellars take on Stravinsky with the Philharmonia and Salonen). Orlande de Lassus (or Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre or Roland de Lattre, take your pick), was a big noise in late Renaissance polyphony, alongside Palestrina and Victoria, who left his native Flanders at the tender age of twelve to ply his singing and composition trade in Mantua, Sicily, Milan, Naples, Rome, then to France and England, back to Antwerp, on to Munich and the Bavarian Court, where he remained until his death in 1594, albeit with plenty more business trips to Italy. Freedom of movement see, at a time when one bit of Europe was economically and culturally much like another. It works to everyone’s advantage despite what the swivel-eyed Brexit nutters tell you.

In total Lasso wrote over 2,000 vocal works including 60 (mostly parody) masses, passions, psalm settings, 530 motets, 175 Italian madrigals, 150 French chansons and 90 German lieder. No instrumental music remains; though it seems unlikely that a composer this busy and this much in demand would not have turned his hand to non-vocal works. He was just as much at home in bawdy, secular comedy as he was in strictly orthodox liturgy and certainly pushed the limits of polyphony with exotic chromaticism and highly wrought word painting. There he is above. Makes me wonder if it is time for a revival of the gentleman’s ruff to better show off our beards.

His most famous work is this, the work on show at this performance, a penitential cycle of 20 “spiritual madrigals” and a concluding Latin motet, the Lagrime di San Pietro, (The Tears of St Peter), his final work before he died in 1594. It is scored for 7 voices and is divided equally into three sections, (reflecting St Peter’s claim to fame, the thrice-fold denial of Christ, the holy trinity, the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and no doubt much other Christian numerological hokum). In this performance the LA Master Chorale was comprised of 21 voices, 6 “canto” for which read soprano, 6 alto, 6 tenor and 3 bass. The settings use 7 of the 8 “church modes”, the system of pitch organisation on which chant was built, as well as for the final motet the tonus perigrinus, outside of the system to symbolise imperfection, and come from the poems of Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). It is through composed with no repetition and Lasso uses all of the skills he had developed in his previous works to create the maximum of emotional, (as well as all this symbolic), impact.

You don’t need to know anything about the arcane history of the secular madrigal, nor Renaissance polyphony more generally, nor all this structural mumbo-jumbo, to be moved by the piece. And it is pretty easy to see why Lasso alighted on these texts. And why the LA Master Chorale, (widely recognised, not least in their own blurb, though I have no reason to doubt it after this performance, as the US’s premier vocal ensemble), under conductor Grant Gershon, should have worked so hard to perfect the performance. Nor why Peter Sellars should have alighted on this for his first stage at directing a non-instrumental piece.

It is, thanks to Tansillo’s faintly (actually not so faintly) melodramatic Italian poetry and Lasso’s extraordinary invention, an inherently dramatic piece, even if it isn’t strictly chronological. Bows, arrows, swords, spears, stabs, wounds, tears, pain, sorrow, shame. You get the picture and that’s just the first couple of madrigals. There’s a couple of lighter moments but it’s mostly the usual Christian S&M guilt trip. So much suffering. Mind you I suppose Lasso was staring death in the face so I can see why he didn’t go with “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”.

Mr Sellars wheels out his usual ritual tropes, arm waving and hand gestures which tend towards the literal, lying on the floor, the whole ensemble assembling tableau style into an alarmed or alarming crowd, various combinations of writhing twos and threes. Remove the music and you could be watching a physical theatre acting class or maybe attending an anger management retreat. Costumes from Daniella Domingue Sumi are gym casual monochrome. The lighting design of Jim F Ingalls is similarly unsubtle. There is a faint whiff of 1970s California.

But you know what, it all works. I can see why some of the pukka reviewers were a bit sniffy about the whole affair but for BUD and I, who like a bit of visual stimulus, it hit the spot. Maybe not “visualising the polyphony” as Mr Sellars claims, but certainly telling a non-linear story. What was most extraordinary however was the sound of the LA Master Chorale. Remember they had to commit both score and choreography to memory. Despite all the on stage shuffling their tone throughout was so precise and so smooth, even in the most complex counterpoint, the shifting dissonances and the meanders through to resolutions. Far less austere than when performed by a European ensemble in penguin suits and evening dresses that’s for sure and better for it.

I was idly through some lists of the greatest choral works ever written which, variously, cover the whole gamut from the very earliest organum from Notre Dame to bang up to date contemporary. But surprisingly few of these lists mention this, Lasso’s finest hour, (well 80 minutes ). Which can’t be right.

Here’s my tuppence worth. Usual rules. No particular order. Well sort of chronological. Only one work per composer. Which is tough on old Bach in particular. All blokes. Sorry.

  • Perotin – Viderunt omnes 
  • Josquin des Prez – Missa Pange Lingua
  • John Taverner – Mass “The Western Wynde”
  • Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
  • Thomas Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah
  • Tomas de Luis Victoria – O magnum mysterium
  • Orland de Lassus – Lagrime di San Pietro
  • William Byrd – Mass for 5 Voices
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers of 1610
  • Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories
  • Giacomo Carissimi – Jepthe
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Gloria
  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – Stabat Mater
  • JS Bach – Mass in B minor
  • Joseph Haydn – The Creation
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
  • Benjamin Britten – War Requiem
  • Krzysztof Penderecki – St. Luke Passion
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Requiem
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen – Stimmung
  • Steve Reich – The Desert Music
  • Iannis Xenakis – Nekuia
  • Arvo Part – Passio

Bach St John Passion: OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Simon Rattle (conductor), Peter Sellars (director), Choir of the Enlightenment

Royal Festival Hall, 2nd April 2019

JS Bach – St John Passion

  • Camilla Tilling (soprano)
  • Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
  • Andrew Staples (tenor)
  • Mark Padmore (tenor, Evangelist)
  • Roderick Williams (baritone, Jesus)
  • George Nigl (baritone)

The Tourist, along with chum for the night TMBOAD, was recently blindsided, in a good way, by the staging of Britten’s War Requiem at the ENO which was far more theatrical than he had anticipated. Well blow me if if didn’t happen again with this St John Passion. I had not really clocked the presence of Peter Sellars on the list of creatives so had only anticipated a semi-staged version, a bit of movement, some subtle lighting, that sort of thing. However, from the moment we saw the OAE lined up on one side of the stage, it was clear something more was on the cards. What we didn’t expect was a full blown, punch to the gut emotional, acted out Passion, complete with modern dress costumes, (red and blue for the Marys, monochrome for the rest), occasional props, an immensely atmospheric lighting design courtesy of Ben Zamora, musical solos from memory, (my favourite was Simone Jandl and her viola d’amore and Katharine Spreckelsen and her oboe da caccia), and even walk-on contributions from Sir Simon Rattle himself.

The St John Passion is a powerful work of act even without the dramatisation, reflecting the subject, (even for those of us who have no faith), and the direct, even simple, way that JSB chose to set it. I can imagine that there will be those who would prefer, in theory, to be left to focus on the music, the voices and the text, but I would defy them not to be bowled over by the extra dimension that Peter Sellars staging brings to the work. This is not the first large scale Bach vocal work that the Tourist and BUD have shared in recent years, we have a B Minor Mass and a Christmas Oratorio under our belt, and the Tourist has a number of independent Bachian choral sojourns on top of this. The Tourist may have waited until his middle ages before he “got” Bach but now he consumes with the zeal of the convert.

Now as it happens Bach himself was reproached by some in the 1720s and beyond for the theatricality of his Passion settings and the fact that he revised them on multiple occasions in later years partly reflected this as well as a more realistic approach to the logistics of the piece and to tighten it up musically. So those who might initially object to this Sellars/Rattle ritualised version as liturgically inappropriate or offensive are in “good” company. There will have been a time after all when staging the Passion in the concert hall rather than the Church will have provoked the ire of some.

Whilst there are some belting chorus parts and chorales in the SJP the thing that really strikes me is the starkness of the settings with minimal instrumental accompaniment to many of the arias and with much use of recitative, and not just from The Evangelist’s narration. A lot of the first two parts is told from the perspective of those around Christ, and, assuming this translation is accurate, the text is very immediate and shorn of ornamentation. JSB cleverly creates a symmetrical structure, centred on the chorale Durch dein Gefangnis, as Pilate seeks to release Jesus, either side of which is the same pattern of choruses, some fugal, solos and chorales but in reverse order. This creates a musical order and narrative structure which informs the “drama”. It is not, as Sir Simon observes in the programme, a very melodic piece even if it does have some very arresting, and surprisingly experimental, musical passages. In short, with these forces, six soloists, a choir of 32 and the OAE numbering 30, it very much has the feel of opera, putting aside its subject. It certainly has emotional clout.

So easy to see why Sir Simon and Peter Sellars long cherished the idea of staging it in this way, finally realised in 2014 in Berlin when Sir Simon was head honcho at the Berlin Phil. The soloists here, led by the very deliberate Mark Padmore, who is pretty much the go too Evangelist, and the superb Roderick Williams as a visibly suffering Jesus, as well as Camilla Tilling, Christine Rice, Andrew Staples and George Nigl, were on top form and all can act as well as sing and the chorus brought real drama to their turns. The fact that the latter four soloists take multiple “roles” creates a texture and an audience empathy that a straight concert hall performance can lack. Contemporary resonance abounds with George Nigl’s equivocating politician Pilate yielding to the “will of the people” and the blindfolding and torture of Christus under investigation.

OK so occasionally some of Mr Sellar’s choreographic tropes grated a little, the hand gestures, the just-so re-creations of classic Renaissance paintings, the singing from prone positions, the pauses to get everyone in the right place, and the sur-titles, whilst a necessary part of the staging, were a bit too curt at times, and, whilst I don’t know where to take the interval the second half, as is usual, is a bit long compared to the first. Overall though this definitely ticked the box for BUD and myself.

Mind you we are, contrary to all appearances a couple of avowed modernists where it comes to our dramatic preferences. And so, I am willing to bet, are the vast majority of punters. Two hours plus of Bach and the story of Christ’s death may not float the boat of many outside us classical music buffs but I doubt there could be a better way to spread the word. Which ultimately is why the old fella wrote this masterpiece in the first place.