St John Passion – review


Polyphony’s Good Friday performance of Bach’s St John Passion has become an annual fixture, but there was no suggestion of routine about this Easter’s vital account under the choir’s founder-conductor Stephen Layton. Performed without an interval but with a couple of pauses – including a moment of meditative silence following Jesus’s death – the two-hour-long structure of choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives maintained consistent impetus and impact.

The forces used – 27 in the choir, with 24 members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanying them – worked well both for the piece and the acoustic, though the orchestra’s strings were less neat in articulating Bach’s sometimes frantic figurations than the choir. The latter were on superb form, producing a bold and focused tone that gave their dramatic interventions as the Jewish crowd – a subject of fierce musicological debate in recent years, though originating in the Gospel text rather than an 18th-century addition to it – a terrifying vehemence.

The soloists formed an impressive team. Ian Bostridge’s plangent tenor brought keen intensity to the Evangelist’s intricately inflected narration, and made expressive highlights of such emotion-laden gestures as Simon Peter’s bitter weeping. Neal Davies’s substantial tone and constant engagement with the text conveyed a deeply human Christus. In her first aria, Katherine Watson’s limpid soprano was gracefully complemented by the gentle luminosity of the OAE’s flautists; the ensemble’s woodwind, indeed, were marvellous throughout.

Iestyn Davies’s mellifluous counter-tenor answered all the solo alto needs. Nicholas Mulroy made his way somewhat gingerly through his first aria, but managed the implacable requirements of the second – which would test any soloist’s breath control to the limit – with outstanding skill. Roderick Williams gave Pilate’s interrogation a steady reasonableness, while his solos were notable for their calm and resolute authority.

 

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Exaudi/Weeks – review


The vocal ensemble Exaudi – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – never fails to demonstrate its remarkable versatility in repertoire ranging from late medieval to bang-up-to-the-minute contemporary. But it’s thanks to the presiding genius of director James Weeks that their programming has such a musical logic, balancing old and new to suit the occasion yet with emphatically no compromise. For this Cheltenham performance, Weeks interlaced songs by Judith Weir, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Stephen Chase and Michael Finnissy with madrigals by the 16th- and 17th-century composers of the golden age, with love their common pursuit.

Anyone seeing the name Weir and, on the basis of reaction to her recent opera, assuming it to be an unfortunate choice of opening number would have been instantly disarmed. The setting of George Herbert’s Love Bade Me Welcome was deceptively simple but telling. Its dialogue between love and the poet’s soul also sowed the seed for two unusual trysting duets between soprano Juliet Fraser and counter-tenor Tom Williams. They combined Hanging Line and Babel, two quite separate movements from Fox’s collection for solo voices, Catalogue Irraisonée, to intriguing effect, with the lilting flow of his A Spousal Verse, setting part of Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion, underlining the elegant tying-in with the Elizabethans. The same two singers brought a hypnotic charm to Lied, the second in Chase’s sequence of four Jandl Songs, more experimental but convincingly delivered by Exaudi. So, too, were the Skempton and Finnissy songs.

Madrigals by Tomkins, John Ward, Wilbye and Weelkes had some of the melancholy angst of unrequited love to counter lighter, lustier numbers: all were done with equal finesse. Weeks’s introductions, which managed by some clever sleight of language to include musicological nuggets as well as tongue-in-cheek notes, only added to the charm.