BBC Proms: Reformation Day

BBC Proms: Reformation Day
Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
Prom 48: A Patchwork Passion
Prom 49: Bach’s St John Passion
Royal Albert Hall, 20 August 2017

Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
William Whitehead, Robert Quinney, organ

The BBC Proms’ acknowledgement of the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation came with three concerts on Sunday 20 August, starting with a lunchtime organ recital featuring the premieres of three pieces from The Orgelbüchlein Project played by its founder/director, the organist William Whitehead. The programme opened and closed with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat (from the Clavierübung III, BWV 552), played by Robert Quinney (who also played Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A major (Op. 65/3)). It also included the fourth of Schumann’s Fugues on B-A-C-H and two of Bach’s own Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes played by William Whitehead and, just before the final Bach Fugue, Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Prelude to the Grand Organ Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach’: a duet for both organists.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Chorale Prelude on Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott sets the melody of the well-known Battle hymn of the Reformation above some complex polyphony with three voices in counterpoint, each speeding up at a different rate to the other as the tension and volume increase dramatically. According to the rather curious programme note about her, she is ‘Earthily East Anglian’ and enjoys a ‘quick post-concert libation’. Jonathan Dove’s Chorale Prelude on ‘Christ Unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ was more impressionistic, with its colourful depiction of the Holy Spirit descending on the River Jorden in the form of, you guessed it, a dove. The chorale theme was fragmented, the main interest being in the accompanying textures which built to a grand climax. Daniel Saleeb’s Chorale Prelude on Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort was more esoteric in mood, the piquant opening sounds giving way to an eclectic range of textures and timbres. This was followed by Saleeb’s Toccata on the same chorale, making inventive use of the organ, albeit with hints of the compositional styles of the likes of Petr Eben, Alain and Messiaen.

One point of interest was that the two organists demonstrated three rather different styles of performance, two of them coming from Robert Quinney. His rather quirkily individual take on Bach’s opening Prelude in E flat included several added flourishes, an exaggerated style of articulation (including almost humorous echo plonks that seemed rather out of place in what is usually considered a majestic and serious work), and a tendency to linger on the first beat of the bar. His Mendelssohn and the concluding Fugue in E flat was played in a rather more respectful style. The Mendelssohn Sonata has an odd second (final) movement, a gentle Andante, following an enormous concluding climax of the first movement. This always catches audiences out, so we had the usual mid-piece applause. I think the only way to avoid this is to move straight into the Andante without pausing, although this audience seemed over-eager to applaud at the end of every piece, however appropriate that might have been. A similar round of applause occurred between the SS Wesley introduction to Bach’s ‘St Anne’ Fugue and the Fugue itself, although on this occasion the applause-inducing delay was caused by one of the two organists having to swivel his way off the rather awkward Royal Albert Hall organ bench.

William Whitehead’s performance of the old and new Orgelbüchlein pieces and the Schumann Fugues on B-A-C-H was exemplary, demonstrating fine control of the vast Albert Hall organ and well-chosen registrations.

Prom 48: A Patchwork Passion
BBC Singers, City of London Sinfonia
Sofi Jeannin, conductor

At 3.30 the BBC Singers, directed by their Chief Conductor designate, Sofi Jeannin, and the City of London Sinfonia gave a rather long (it ran well over its advertised finishing time) potted history of 500 years of Western European religious music under the title of A Patchwork Passion, most related to the Reformation and, at least initially, in chronological order. Creating a musical Passion story, they opened with the earliest known example of a Passion, by Johann Walter (1496-1570), composed in Luther’s time. After an excursion into the Romantic excess of John Stainers’s ‘Cruxifiction’ Walter’s austere simplicity was reflected in the more recent Passio by Arvo Pärt, incidentally, as an Orthodox believer, about as far from a Lutheran as you can get, as was Sofia Gubaidulina, also Orthodox, here represented by a short extract from her St John Passion of 2000, based on Russian chant. James MacMillan, a Catholic, offered a passage from his ‘Seven Last Words’ of 1993. The Patchwork Passion finished with an overblown Romantic version of the Chorale Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Endlein from Bach’s St John Passion, a work we were to hear in its entirety that evening. Sofi Jeannin directed this complex programme with aplomb.

Prom 49: Bach’s St John Passion
Dunedin Consort, John Butt
Nicholas Mulroy, Evangelist, Matthew Brook, Jesus

The climax of the day, and one of the undoubted highlights of the entire 2017 Proms season, was the evening performance of Bach’s St John Passion given by John Butt and his Dunedin Consort. Unbelievably for such a distinguished conductor and consort, this was their Proms debut. The Passion was expanded to include elements of what might have been heard during the 1739 Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig. Most of us are now used to hearing the Jacobus Handl motet Ecce quomodo moritur sung after the final Bach chorus and chorale: it is known that this was the practice in Leipzig. But on this occasion, we also had a concluding chanted Blessing with the Evangelist, Nicholas Mulroy taking on the role of the Pastor.

But the biggest, and bravest, of John Butt’s innovations was including three congregational chorales. Rather than have the audience sing some of the chorales within the Passion, three additional chorales were chosen, sung at the start, the conclusion of the first part and at the end. Each was introduced by the appropriate organ chorale prelude, played expertly on the Royal Albert Hall organ by Stephen Farr. He also played a Buxtehude Praeludium at the start and a powerful chorale prelude before Part 2. The audience sang one or two verses of each chorale, in English and unaccompanied, with the Dunedin choir singing the other verses in the original German. Only for the final verse of the final chorale Nun danket alle Gott did the full force of the choir and organ join the audience – a thrilling conclusion to a very moving occasion. The interval took the place of the hour-long Good Friday sermon although, during the pre-concert rehearsal of the audience chorales, John Butt encouraged us to “preach to each other” instead.

Another way that Butt drew the audience into the music was in his positioning of the choir and orchestra, divided right and left of the central axis, rather than with the choir behind the orchestra. This is almost certainly closer to the layout the Bach would have used in Leipzig, where the Passion and cantata performances took place from the west-end gallery high above the congregation, positioned either side of the main church organ (which, incidentally, would have been used as the continuo instrument). As well as the soloists at the front, the front row of the sopranos and altos were also at the front, level with the violins on the opposite side. It meant that both orchestra and choir were deep set, rather than wide, the choir five-rows deep, the orchestra with the violas sitting on the raised steps at the back alongside the woodwind, who stood for all their playing moments. I could not detect any acoustic or technical issues with this placement of the musicians.

Proms Bach.jpg

With the exception of some rather vibrant singing in the louder chorus moments, the singing from choir and soloists was outstanding, particularly from Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook as the Evangelist and Jesus. Nicolas Mulroy (pictured, with John Butt) is one of the finest Evangelists around, his direct and involved commentary given a real sense of personal involvement and drama. He gave space to his commentary, most notably at the moment when Pilote asks Jesus yet another question. Mulroy’s anticipatory silence at this point was a moment of real drama, as Jesus refuses to reply. Matthew Brook portrayed Jesus as a strong, and occasionally an angry man, his responses to the questioning of Pilate being particularly powerful. His final exclamation Es ist vollbracht was sung in triumph.

This was a magnificent Proms debut for John Butt and the Dunedin Consort in this very welcome visit from the Edinburgh home. John Butt’s directed was exemplary, working with, rather than at, his fellow musicians, and showing commendable humility when acknowledging the enormous applause from the audience. His rehearsing of the audience also revealed a wonderful sense of humour.

As with the other two concerts, this is available on BBC iPlayer. It was also broadcast live on BBC Four TV and should be still accessible.




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