Hearing sacred music performed as a concert, removed from its original context in both time and space, is a little like looking at the altar pieces in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery: theres still a deep connection on many levels (which is what makes it timeless), but you also have the feeling that something isnt quite right.
This concert was no exception: as understated and elegant as the venue in which it took place, Gardiners rendering of Bachs masterpiece took the breath away with its breadth of conception and sheer fluency of technique. But the ultimate effect was one of Apollonian beauty, deeply effective in many ways but ultimately abstracted from its true import. And while one has to admire Gardiners willingness to draw vocal soloists from within the choir (as would have been standard practice in Bachs day and still is in most church choirs), theres a price to be paid in terms of quality of performance, particularly with music as complex as this.
Of the soloists, Mark Padmore and Dietrich Henschel were magnificent; of the concertisten (veritable solo singers who also simultaneously served as section leaders as opposed to Ripienisten, the other voices singing the same voice part as the Concertisten'...), the glorious soprano Katharine Fuge was the only one worthy of note; the rest ranged from adequate to downright terrible. But thats not to reflect badly on the choir as a whole, which was superb, highly responsive to the subtle dynamic and rhythmic modulations required of it and clear in both texture and diction (the Trinity Boys Choir, by the way, also acquitted itself wonderfully). The instrumental soloists were impeccable, especially flautist Rachel Beckett and violinist Kati Debretzeni, and the orchestra was a match for the choir in terms of sheer responsiveness and beauty of sound.
What made the strongest impression was seeing Padmore and Henschel standing on either side of Gardiner, isolated from the choirs, and yet singing along in the chorales just like everyone else. It was very touching and went some way in supplying much of what is normally lost in a secular presentation of such intensely spiritual music.
- Repeat performance on 10 March at 7 oclock
- Cadogan Hall Box Office: 020 7730 4500