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.

Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican review ****

Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018

Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.

It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.

So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.

Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.

GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.

Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.

Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.

And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.

I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.

Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.

For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.

Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.

So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.

War Requiem at the ENO review ****

War Requiem

English National Opera, London Coliseum, 22nd November 2018

Please probably inevitable that the Tourist, armed with the freedom (and fortunately the budget) to gad about town, his love of Benjamin Britten’s music and his wish to continue to honour those who die in pointless wars was going to end up attending a performance of War Requiem this year. The ENO version, which had the added draw of the Porgy and Bess cast, (augmenting the ENO’s marvellous choir), and the involvement of German photographer artist Wolfgang Tillmans looked the likeliest candidate.

I, or more correctly we, as TMBOAD, a scion of Coventry and admirer of the work, joined me, got way more than we bargained for. I had expected a semi-staged concert performance, with maybe a few arty slides in the background. Instead we got a full scale dramatic interpretation of BB’s oratorio, with the three soloists and choirs telling the story of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, alongside the setting of the Latin Requiem, fully costumed, with very effective lighting from Charles Balfour, augmenting the  and with Mr Tillmans distinctive photographic techniques adding further colour. 

Obviously the War Requiem was not written as an opera but BB being BB it is   naturally dramatic and, up to a point, lends itself to an “operatic” interpretation. Having said that, the very nature and subject of the work, even in its most striking scoring, is steadily paced and having the ENO orchestra, solidly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in the pit and a chorus constantly in motion, and indeed often prone, inevitably has some impact on what we heard. But this was, moreorless, compensated by what we saw, which was, at times, extremely powerful.

Back to the story. WR was first performed in May 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the C14 original destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids in November 1940 (see above). BB, a lifelong pacifist, scored the work for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). The full orchestrated choirs and soprano are used to accompany the sections of the Latin Requiem. to represent formal, transcendent grief, with the chamber forces and male soloists, representing two opposing soldiers, singing the interspersed English poetry. The children’s choir, accompanied by a chamber organ, present a more distant presence, innocence corrupted, an ever-present BB theme.

BB had originally intended that Peter Pears, an Englishman, sang the tenor role, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German, the baritone and Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian, the soprano, but the Soviet authorities prevented the latter from travelling so Heather Harper stepped in. The classic recording with the LSO and Bach Choir conduced by BB, which everyone should own, has the original trio however. (Mind you there are plenty to choose from). 

BB unfortunately couldn’t conduct the CBSO at the premiere but no matter. The performance was a triumph. The Tourist has enjoyed a fair few performances in his time, (and seen the curious Derek Jarman film interpretation which is notable for Sir Larry O’s last ever performance). The music always delivers and so it was here. Now in addition to the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the poem settings and the six movements of the Requiem itself (Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera me, BB apparently uses the interval of a tritone between C and F sharp (an interval of three whole tones, known as the “devil in music”) as a recurring motif to create harmonic distance and then resolution, notably in the Agnus Dei, and thus evoke the notion of conflict and resolution. Elsewhere there are various brass fanfares, string arpeggios, marches and fugues in various three part time signatures, and various repetitions of lines, but the full vocal forces do not combine until the very end. So three is the magic number here.

Even if you don’t know your tritone from your backside your ears will still easily navigate their way through the score even on first hearing, such is the immediacy of B’s orchestration. And there are enough OMG musical moments to pull you up short. And that’s before you even get to the texts. Particular highlights for me are the extract from Anthem for Doomed Youth for tenor in the opening Requiem Aeternam, the soprano and chorus Lacrimosa in the Des irae, the Domine Jesu Christe from the boys’ choir, the Parable of the Old Man and the Young for tenor and baritone, The Sanctus and Benedictus, Strange Meeting with the lilting, poignant lullaby “Let us sleep now ….” and indeed pretty much everything else in the Libera me at the end. 

So, if the music, words and message reliably overwhelm, and get you thinking deeply about the utter horror and pointlessness of war, what is added through a full scale staging. Well, having the chorus on stage, variously signifying troops, refugees, dead bodies, I am assuming, was intriguing. A remarkable choreographic achievement from Ann Yee allied with costume design by Nasir Mazhar. Mr Tillmans most successfully employed close up, sharply exposed photographic images drawn, I believe, from  Coventry Cathedral itself in the three screen back drop to the stage, which dissolved into blocks of muted colour, and there were some fine tableaux (notably a snow/mushroom cloud effect) courtesy of ENO house director Daniel Kramer. Having said that, and despite the remarkable efforts of dramaturg Luc Joosten, carving out a sort of narrative when none is really there, there were a few moments when the various elements didn’t quite gel and the on-stage shuffling, and overt literalism, was more distraction than illumination. 

But no matter. It is one of the finest, acclaimed and most powerful pieces of classical music written in the second half of the C20. The Tourist has seen a fair few performances of impassioned anti-war classical work in the last few weeks, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet, Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, but this ranks as the definitive statement. And, with soloists of the calibre of Roderick Williams, David Butt Philip, and, the tremendous Emma Bell as seer/earth mother/angel of death, there was never any real risk of disappointment.

The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

sally_beamish_288x257

Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.