Bach Shafted!

Bach: St John Passion
Thames Tunnel Shaft, Rotherhithe.  11 April 2015.

This must be one of the most bizarre musical venues I have ever been in, and an extraordinary place to hear one of Bach’s most sacred works. Between 1825/43, Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom constructed a tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, the first of its kind in the world. In order to construct the tunnel, they sank a 15m diameter shaft on the south side of the river in Rotherhithe. With the addition of stairs, this shaft later became the pedestrian entry to the tunnel, but was closed when the tunnel started taking trains rather than pedestrians. The Thames Tunnel is now an active part of London’sWP_20150411_19_23_30_Pro railway system, and the shaft has been re-opened with a concrete floor inserted to separate it from the trains below. It is currently only accessible by wriggling through a 1.3m high entrance and clambering about 12m down on some rickety scaffolding stairs.

Hieronymus is a flexible ensemble formed in Birmingham in 2013 by Andrew Hopper, named after the Hamburg organist composer, Praetorius, and the Dutch painter, Bosch. They are moving their activities to London, and are keen to seek out unusual venues, this being a pretty good start. Just getting their instruments into the shaft must have been quite a struggle. They also had to cope with the awkward acoustics (for them, but not the audience) resulting WP_20150411_19_38_06_Profrom being positioned against the circular wall as well as some tricky score lighting, solved in the case of the first violins by a slightly inelegantly-positioned mobile phone torch (see adjoining photo). We all had to cope with the frequent rumbles of the trains passing underneath, and planes approaching London City Airport audible from above. It reminded me of a St John’s Passion I heard in Bach’s own Thomaskirche during the 2013 Leipzig Bachfest where an extraordinary thunder-storm started just before the concert.  The thunder and lightening flashes continued throughout the performance, nearly always at appropriate moments (including a huge thunderclap just as Jesus sang Es ist vollbracht), adding an evocative layer of drama to the occasion.

Given all the things that could have gone wrong, Hieronymus gave an impressive performance of this complex work. Michael Solomon Williams, standing in at short notice as the Evangelist, was the finest singer. Lewis Jones was Jesus, with Andrew Randall as Pilate. Four other singers completed the vocal line-up, forming the chorus, step-out roles, and the solos, with soprano Teresa Pearson being the only one that really managed to lift her voice above the sound of the instruments in this confined space. The period instrument orchestra was led with commendable subtlety by violinist Dominika Fehér.  Hieronymus’s musical director was one of the choir members singing from behind and to one side of the orchestra, making it difficult for him to direct. But he stepped forward to play the viola da gamba in Es ist vollbracht. In the earlier, and similarly sensitive Betrachte, meine Seel, neither the distinctive lute part nor the organ doubling were audible, and muted violins were used rather than the specified violas d’amore. But that was my only quibble in what was otherwise a fine performance.

Hieronymus are clearly an inventive group, with interesting ideas on classical music venues. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

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