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Reviews

Prom 49: Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach’s <em>St John Passion</em>
21 Aug 2017

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Prom 49: Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: John Butt directs the Dunedin Consort in a liturgical reconstruction of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

 

For the climax of the BBC Proms celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Butt and the Dunedin Consort performed Bach's St John Passion at the Royal Albert Hall in the context of Lutheran Vespers, with organist Stephen Farr performing chorale preludes by Bach and Buxtehude on the Royal Albert Hall Organ, and the audience being encouraged to join in the congregational chorales. The passion was performed by Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Matthew Brook (Jesus), with Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff and Robert Davies.

But if we were expecting the same stripped down approach to the passion that John Butt uses on the recording, then we were in for a bit disappointment. Part of Butt's ethos when recording Bach is not only textual fidelity, but research into the original performance traditions. This meant that the CD re-created the Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday Vespers, and used a total of ten singers to perform all the solos and the choruses, with a similarly small instrumental ensemble. At the Royal Albert Hall, Butt had a professional choir of 36 and an orchestra with based around 33 strings.

Thankfully, the performance from Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist showed that you did not need large forces to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mulroy was riveting, easily communicating music and text, and singing largely from memory, this was spine-tingling narration. Mulroy is a highly involved and vivid performer, bringing out the extremes of the passion story, and imbuing the music with a remarkable range of colour. But, as with every good Evangelist, it was the text which really counted and Mulroy's level of involvement and projection made a gripping evening.

Mulroy was matched by the dignified Jesus of Matthew Brook, who similarly used the words to devastating effect and somehow conveyed that he really did mean it. He sang with a trenchant firmness of line, and rather than being other-worldly was wonderfully human.

Nicholas Mulroy performs the role of the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St John Passion.jpg Nicholas Mulroy performs the role of the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.

The other soloists did not always achieve the same degree of communicability, though it has to be admitted that singing Baroque music in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall is rather a fine art. Sophie Bevan was a beautifully focussed soprano soloist. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ was sung with a lovely sense of joy, and some fine passagework, whilst Bevan was partnered by the magical sound of four baroque flutes. In ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ she found a real vein of expressive purity.

Tim Mead was poised and expressive in ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’, though perhaps a little too controlled, and he was partnered by some very fine oboe playing indeed. In ‘Es is vollbracht’ he was movingly expressive, and in contrast to many of the fleet speeds in other movements here John Butt allowed the movement to unfold in its own time, with vivid contrasts in the middle section.

Andrew Tortise made ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ quite dramatic and rather vivid. ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbeter Rücken’ was beautifully considered and expressive, but seemed to lack the ultimate emotional punch needed. Here Tortise was partnered by the lovely sound of a pair of muted violins, whilst in ‘Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt’, Tortise's fine performance was somewhat overshadowed by the vivid playing of the orchestral violins

Bass soloist Konstantin Wolff was nicely correct in his arias, singing with fine control and nice sense of line but he seemed not to be able to project the underlying emotions across the Albert Hall's large spaces, this was a rather more intimate performance. In ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ the balance with the chorus was not always ideal. Baritone Robert Davies sang Pilate with fine musicality but with a rather muted sense of the drama.

The chorus might, perhaps, have been larger than I was hoping for but musically they certainly did not disappoint. Butt's speeds throughout were often fleet, and his singers followed him admirably and produced a series of vivid and moving performances. The great opening and closing choruses were both kept moving, yet without skating over the surface so that the deep emotions of the music was conveyed too. In the turbae, the singing was fast, furious and wonderfully vivid.

The large orchestra was similarly impressive, not just in the myriad solo moments that Bach provides, but in the degree of expressivity found in the general run of the music.

The soloists sang in the opening and closing choruses and chorales, which is just as it should be and made the piece feel much more like a communal expression. The extracts of the vespers service provided a remarkable piece of context. The reconstruction is, to a certain extent, speculative but informative nonetheless. The way the Bach and Buxtehude organ chorale preludes flowed seamless from the chorales on which they were based, sung lustily in unaccompanied unison by the Prom audience, gave a vivid impression of the importance of context in this work. After the end of the passion, we flowed directly in Jacob Handl's funeral motet, and then on to the blessing, and a final pairing of chorale prelude and chorale.

In the programme booklet, John Butt talked about the important hierarchy of the different levels of singing in the church in Bach's day, from the congregation's chorales through the more sophisticated Renaissance-style motet singing (done with several singers to a part) to the more soloistic performance of Bach's own music, performed by very few singers. But this was something we rather missed in this performance which allied itself to modern choral traditions of performance. In terms of balance there was the usual problem of 'can you hear the oboes?'. In the livelier choral moments, we heard very much a choir and strings with both the oboes and the chamber organ rather disappearing into the texture.

It is unfair of a listener to expect a performance to re-create exactly the effect of a particular recording, but I could not help feeling that this performance of the St John Passion was a missed opportunity in a number of ways. The long running time (nearly three hours) and late start time meant that audience members were leaving before the end, and you wished that an afternoon slot could have been found for the event. That someone did not believe that a stripped down performance with just 10 singers could fill the Royal Albert Hall was a shame, Nicholas Mulroy showed how it could be done.

The performance is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Robert Hugill

J.S. Bach: St John Passion (performed within a reconstruction of the Leipzig liturgy for Good Friday Vespers)

Evangelist - Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Jesus - Matthew Brook (bass), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Tim Mead (alto), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Konstantin Wolff (bass), Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director)

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London; Sunday 20th August 2017.

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