Bach & Fauré

Bach & Fauré
Tenebrae & Aurora Orchestra
St John’s, Smith Square: 
Holy Week Festival. 12 April 2017

For many years now there has been a music festival at St John’s, Smith Square during the run-up to Easter, and similarly at Christmas. The Easter version has been re-branded as the ‘Holy Week Festival’ and is curated by St John’s itself and the choir TenebraeWP_20170415_12_08_45_Pro (2).jpg. It still includes the annual favourite Good Friday afternoon Bach Passion from Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but has also introduced some other new faces to the Eastertide Smith Square festivities. I was away for several of the events, but did manage to catch three contrasting events, starting with a curious concert by Tenebrae themselves, together with the Aurora Orchestra, both of whom seem to have caught the public imagination in recent years, not least by some impressive publicity.

The Tenebrae/Aurora concert contrasted music by Bach with Fauré’s ever popular Requiem, apparently a pairing that stemmed from a rather awkward event in St Paul’s Cathedral when a well-known London symphony orchestra accepted a booking despite them also appearing in another country at the same time, leaving only a chamber group of musicians to appear under their name in London. The available musicians were sufficient for the reduced forces of the Fauré. To complete the programme, they drew on the 2001 recording and subsequent international tour of The Hilliard Ensemble’s CD ‘Morimur’ (ECM Records, ECM New Series 1765), copying key elements of their CD and concert programme. They did the same for this SJSS concert, without acknowledgement, or even any mention of The Hilliard Ensemble.

The programme notes did mention the theory behind Morimur, the analytical study of Bach’s unaccompanied violin Sonatas and Partitas by the German violin teacher, Helga Thoene, and quoted her notes from the 2001 Morimur CD. Her controversial 1994 theory was that the Bach solo violin works include an extraordinarily complex series of symbolic references, and that the Ciaccona that concludes Bach’s Partita No 2 (BWV 1004) was written as a tombeau to his recently deceased first wife, Maria Barbara, and is based on, and includes extensive quotes from, the Lutheran chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden. 

For the paired down version of The Hilliard Ensemble’s project, the 21 singers of Tenebrae sang a series of Bach harmonised chorales, interspersed with the five movements of Bach’s Violin Partite in D. The violin soloist was Max Baillie, principal viola of the Aurora Orchestra, playing a modern violin at modern pitch. For the final Ciaccona, he was joined by Tenebrae singing snippets of Christ lag in Todesbanden to extend some of the notes from the violin score, in accordance with Helga Thoene’s theory.

This is not the place to discuss the theory, but I have commented before that the fragmented nature of most of the apparent chorale quotations means that one could probably find all sorts of melodic fragments in such a complex work. When I have heard the Hilliard’s Morimur full-length programme (which I last reviewed at St John’s, Smith Square, in May 2014 during what was then called the Lufthansa Festival (now the London Festival of Baroque Music), with some outstanding violin playing from Kati Debretzeni), the Ciaccona has been played solo, before repeating it with the chorale additions. Hearing it just with the choral interjections is not a satisfying musical experience, made more disagreeable on this occasion by some very wayward violin playing from Max Ballie, in the Ciaccona and many of the preceding movements. The Gigue, for example, was played at an obscenely rapid pace, making nonsense of Bach’s musical structure. The singers did well to keep track of his frequent changes of tempo in the Ciaccona. 

The Ciaccona was segued straight into the opening bars of Fauré’s Requiem, performed here in the 1893 version with two added horns added to the string orchestra and organ. The horns were expanded to the optional four, but the other optional additions of bassoons, trumpets, trombones and timpani were not included.

Emma Walshe and Stephen Kennedy were fine soloists, while the Tenebrae singers allowed themselves a little more vibrato than in their excellently clear singing of the Bach chorales. For this concert, the orientation of SJSS was reversed, with the audience facing towards the impressive organ case – a very satisfying arrangement, visually. Organist James Sherlock managed to find some, if not all, of the French colours of the SJSS organ. The Aurora orchestra used modern instruments rather than those of Fauré’s time. The two solo violin contributions used far too much vibrato, made more prominent because of the high pitch, causing intonation problems.

Tenebrae’s billing for the concert promised that they “will make use of the whole building in order to create an immersive audience experience”. I am not sure what this referred to, as the only addition to the normal staging was lots of candles.

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