Bach: Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Padmore
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 31 March 2018

During Easter Saturday, I watched a broadcast from Berlin of the powerful Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars staging of the St Matthew Passion that I had reviewed back in 2014 at the Proms. And in the evening, an unstaged, but equally powerful Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance in Basingstoke’s Anvil. The common factor was Mark Padmore, appearing as the Evangelist and, in the case of the OAE, as director. I don’t object in principle to stagings of the Bach Passions. Sellar’s use of the space in and around the orchestras was very effective, and I also liked Jonathan Miller’s inspiringly human reading in the mid-1990s, and Deborah Warner’s 2000 ENO staging of the St John Passion, which drew the audience directly into the unfolding drama. But sometimes just being presented with the music itself, without additional layering, is the way to focus on the complex human emotions that Bach portrays. 

The St Matthew Passion was probably first performed on Good Friday 1727, three years after the St John Passion, and was revised in 1736. It is not known how it was performed, but the often quoted suggestion that the two choirs and orchestras were positioned close to the two organs in the Leipzig Thomaskirche seems unlikely, as the main organ was at the west end of the church while the smaller organ was at the other end of the nave, on a side gallery. The sheer distance apart would have caused innumerable issues, not least of timing in the joint choruses. The OAE’s arrangement of the two choirs (the Choir of the Enlightenment) and their two orchestras separated left and right on a single stage is probably closer to the possible original layout of having both choirs and orchestras on the west-end gallery, either side of the main organ in the centre. The large organ might have been used for both continuo parts, but would almost certainly have supported Choir 1 and the combined chorus sections. Separate string continuo sections in each orchestra seem likely, as was the case here.

Bach placed the two principal soloists (Evangelist and Christus) in Choir 1, but the OAE moved them, together with the Choir 1 soprano and alto soloists, to the centre. This is an understandable approach for presentation purposes, but musically it widens the acoustic width of the Choir 1 chorus passages. It also puts undue prominence on just two of six soloists, which Bach draws from both choirs. Apart from that point, the wide spacing of the two 8-strong choirs was good, bringing clarity to Bach’s part writing and giving an impressive breadth of expression in the turbo crowd scenes. There were two continuo organs, one with a powerful sound that made itself felt, the other, in the Orchestra 2, more subdued. One issue in the opening movement is the use of the organ to reinforce the chorale melody O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig. This is marked as for soprano in ripieno, but there are no instruments (like the oboe) supporting the sopranos except the organ in Orchestra 1.  Placing the two sopranos from Choir 2 in front of the central group of soloists worked well, but the very high pitched organ sound (which should have been unison to the voices, no doubt using something like a Sesquialtera stop, or a reed) just sounded shrieky and out of place.

One of the strengths of this production is the fact that there is no conductor. Indications of when to start came from within the orchestra and choir, and not always from Mark Padmore, whose directorial contributions had clearly been in rehearsal rather than on stage when we saw little more than an occasional nod or gesture. Kati Debrestzeni, leading the orchestra at short notice on the indisposition of Matthew Truscott, directed most of the orchestral sections, with Steven Devine or Luise Buchberger directing the continuo section. There are many instrumental highlights, on this occasion including Kati Debrestzeni, violin, Luise Buchberger and Cecelia Bruggemeyer as cello and bass continuo, Steven Devine and Masumi Yamamoto, organ continuo, Katharina Spreackelsen and Alexandra Bellamy oboes d’amore and da caccia, Lisa Bexnosiuk, flute, and Richard Tunnicliffe as 2nd orchestra cello and, notably, in his beautifully evocative and plaintive viola da gamba solo in Ja, freilich  – Komm, süßes Kreuz, so will ich sagen

Vocally, the soloists were Mark Padmore Evangelist/tenor and Roderick Williams Christus/baritone, together with Louise Kemény and Jessica Cale soprano, Eleanor Minney mezzo, Claudia Huckle contralto (rather than the usual countertenor), Hugo Hymas tenor, and Matthew Brook bass-baritone. Mark Padmore is one of the finest evangelists around, portraying real emotion in his telling of the biblical story, rather than being a neutral observer, although touring complexities and an end-of-Holy-Week date took its toll on some of his very highest notes. Roderick Williams’ voice seemed to have survived the busy tour more succesfully, portraying a strong, rather than meek and mild Jesus. Both also gave superb step-out-of-role solos. Matthew Brook’s Pilatus was appropriately stentorian, and I also like tenor Hugo Hymas, soprano Jessica Cale, and mezzo Elanor Minney. For my taste, the principal soprano and alto soloists revealed rather too much vibrato for the clarity of Bach’s writing. The turbo chorus scenes were particularly well sung, notably the declamatory Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden, as was the way that they leapt to their feet, to the shock of some in the audience, at one or two of crowd interjections.

Even the most devote of Christian believers would struggle with some of the early 18th-century mid-German Lutheran concepts that underly Bach’s story of the death of Christ. Andrew Mellor’s intelligent four-page background essay did much to set the piece in context, and there are several OAE background films and text to support the piece. The way that the OAE and Mark Padmore presented this extraordinary piece allowed everybody to judge their own involvement in the text, whether they were a music-loving atheist or a devout Lutheran. I particularly liked the start of each half, when the entire musical forces just stood in silence until the audience had settled before starting, absolutely on time, but without any obvious indicator of who had started them off.

A memorably evening.



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