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J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1748)
16 Sep 2008

Prom 51 — St. John Passion

Sunday 24th August at the Proms promised a day dedicated to the music of Bach, beginning with an organ recital in the afternoon by Simon Preston and ending with a late-night performance of the first three of the six Cello Suites by Chinese cellist Jian Wang by way of a palate-cleanser.

Prom 51 — J.S. Bach: St. John Passion

Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Peter Harvey (Christus), Katharine Fuge (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass). Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (cond.)
Royal Albert Hall, 24 August 2008


The centrepiece of the homage was a performance of the St John Passion, the shorter, tauter and more uplifting of Bach’s two extant Passion settings.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner was at the helm of this one, delivering a performance that was both exactingly schooled and dramatically compelling. Admittedly his firm-set ideas on historically-informed performance are a trifle predictable, and can be irritating after a while: the over-stressing of the first beat in every bar of the opening chorus was somewhat bothersome, as was the exaggerated running-through of the ends of phrases of the chorales wherever the text contains no comma.

The soloists were led by the experienced Evangelist of Mark Padmore, who always manages to convey a stark emotional connection with the music while still retaining a refined delivery. Other than Padmore, the singers were variable; Peter Harvey’s Christus was more than adequate, but the most interesting and dramatically compelling was the bass-baritone Matthew Brook as Pontius Pilate, whose role in John’s gospel is so much more prominent than in Matthew’s more detailed account.

Soprano Katharine Fuge sang with limpid tone, but her phrasing was short-breathed, and her voice is such a small sound that I wonder if she was audible at all in the further reaches of the Hall. I take issue with whoever came up with the idea for the ‘sobbing’ ornamentation in the B section of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’; it was the one really tasteless moment of the concert. Alto Robin Blaze was very uneven in his first aria, which is perhaps a little high-lying for him, but much more satisfying in his second, ‘Es ist vollbracht’ which comes at the moment of Christ’s death. Nicholas Mulroy and Jeremy Budd shared the tenor arias, Mulroy acquitting himself with more consistency.

The Monteverdi Choir, in which the soloists also participated, performed with vocal colouring and facial expression appropriate to each of the dramatic choruses. The choir were radiantly uplifting in the closing chorus and chorale, affirming Man’s confidence in the presence of a hitherto non-existent gateway to Paradise.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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