The Bach Choir – St Matthew Passion Returns to Royal Festival Hall

Written by: Graham Rogers

David Hill, musical director of The Bach Choir, is looking to move forward the annual Palm Sunday performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion and make it fresh…

David Hill

The Bach Choir’s annual Palm Sunday performance of St Matthew Passion has long since been as traditional a part of the English musical calendar as the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, or the Last Night of the Proms. The first such occasion was at the Queen’s Hall in 1930, moving – like the Proms – to the more cavernous Royal Albert Hall after the Queen’s Hall was bombed in 1941. It moved again in 1957, to the then recently-built Royal Festival Hall, where it has been performed every Palm Sunday since – with the exception of the past two years when the hall’s refurbishment meant the choir had to return temporarily to the Albert Hall.

So this year is something of a homecoming. David Hill, the choral world’s man-of-the-moment, has been Musical Director of the Bach Choir since 1998. He views the Festival Hall as a pragmatic choice of venue for St Matthew Passion. “It’s as much a matter of tradition as anything else. Anywhere that’s a concert venue as distinct from a religious one is disadvantaged, unquestionably, because Bach didn’t design it for that. On the other hand, our performance (means that) 2,500 people can come to hear it. It would be difficult to achieve that in any liturgical venue.”

He illustrates the point with a rhetorical challenge: “If you can tell me of a place in London apart from St Paul’s Cathedral (which is very unsuited to Bach) where that number of people could actually hear it and enjoy it – and on a Sunday in Lent – then I’d love to know where it is!”

But does he find it hard to create the right atmosphere for such a deeply religious work in a large, secular venue? “No, I really don’t. The way the Evangelist sets the tone, the way the choir responds to the drama of the work, building things up with the crowd, and the response to all of that through the chorales: there’s a clarity of communication you get in a concert hall that sometimes you miss in a large (church) acoustic”. Hill argues that churches can actually deter potential audiences. “A lot of people who are happy to hear the St Matthew Passion in the RFH wouldn’t necessarily be church-goers themselves or even great believers – they just see it as a great work of art”. The Bach Choir’s Palm Sunday performance, Hill says, has “its own following” of people who come “almost as a pilgrimage to be part of it”. After nearly 70 years “it seems to have its place. It’s our [the choir’s] job – and the soloists’ job – to draw everyone in.”

The performance is always sung in English. Is this an important part of drawing people in? Hill hesitates. “I never did it in English before I went to the Bach Choir. I was always used to it in German, and I still do it in German with other groups”. He believes that the vernacular is “never going to be quite the same as the original”, but “has no doubt” that it has an important place. Modern translations have helped immeasurably: “It’s not some flowery Victorian language that’s being used any more”. New translations have “a directness and an honesty”, and can even be adjusted “to make things work better” if necessary. “A similar argument exists whether it’s a Bach Passion or English National Opera doing Mozart. I love going to ENO. They can do things that are terrifically good, and you get a directness which is very helpful – especially for something that you don’t know very well. But I equally love going to Covent Garden to hear the same piece. I think Bach is exactly the same.”

Does he conduct the Matthew Passion differently in English? “No. Although it’s not a literal translation we’re singing, the meaning behind the German is always there”. Widening the argument, he continues that “Bach is one of the composers whose music suits all types of approaches” – as long as one remains faithful to essential “elements within which you’re working”. Integral elements of Bach’s music for Hill include a “buoyancy of rhythm and dance” and an “understanding of counterpoint” and how it works in context.

David Hill is a very busy man. Besides the Bach Choir, which he has helmed since 1998, he has been Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers since 2007, when he relinquished his post as Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge. Does he tailor his Bach according to each choir he works with? “No, I don’t think so”. Perhaps taking the question as an (unintended) criticism of unwieldy, lumbering amateur choirs, he leaps to a robust defence: “The Bach Choir is the only large choir I’ve ever worked with that understands that you don’t put your Wellington boots on for this music – you have your trainers on. They can go at any pace and do anything in terms of articulation that is equal to smaller groups. I can’t say that’s true of all the large choirs I’ve worked with. It’s unique to the Bach Choir that they can do this. It’s part of their tradition.”

The Bach Choir. ©Edward Webb

That tradition stretches back to 1876 when the newly-formed choir gave the first performances in England of Bach’s Mass in B minor. The choir was thus a major player in the ‘modern’ revival of interest in Bach’s music. Its impressive list of past conductors includes such luminaries as Ralph Vaughan Williams (1921-28), an ardent advocate of ‘early’ music, and Adrian Boult (1928-31) – both at early stages in their distinguished careers. And, of course, the towering figure of Sir David Willcocks, who reigned for almost 40 years from 1960 until 1998.

David Hill has high praise for his predecessor’s achievements. “The last performance I heard David Willcocks conduct [with the Bach Choir] was absolutely magical: it was bouncing along and the choir was so buoyant, floating on the top of the water. It was a delight to hear. The choral singing was wonderful.” He sites this as proof that “it isn’t impossible to engage a lot of people in singing Bach in a stylistically relevant way.” But more of a challenge than with a smaller, professional choir? “Of course – inevitably.”

But maintaining the right stylistic approach to Bach is clearly something Hill takes very seriously. “In the Bach Choir now we’re lucky to have about 130 members under 30” – an impressive statistic considering the generally ‘mature’ nature of amateur choirs – “and I was working with a lot of them [recently], those who’ve done fewer than three ‘Matthew Passions’ with us, for an extra half-hour after the rehearsal – talking about lightness and phrasing, explaining how it works in this choir”. These ‘after-school’ sessions show that Hill means business. “What I’m really aiming for is to get it to sound as though the numbers don’t matter.”

As long as these stylistic rules are observed, Hill says, there is a convincing argument in favour of the large choir approach: “The RFH is a huge hall, a huge environment in which to sing this sort of music. I think it would be very difficult to hear it sung with even 24 pros in the RFH – it would make very little impact at all.” He sites the example of Roger Norrington’s Mass in B minor at the 2000 BBC Proms, which used “75 pros, I think; and I always say that a pro is worth between two and three amateurs – so you’re looking at the equivalent of an amateur choir of about 200 to make anything like the same kind of sound.”

Since 2002 the Bach Choir has performed St Matthew Passion with period-instrument band Florilegium. Is the orchestra in danger of being swamped by the large number of singers? “No – we hire enough players to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have a large bank of strings to support the sound but, again, they all play with a wonderful buoyancy and lift so it doesn’t matter about numbers, it’s just a great gathering of sound”. Again, an emphasis on stylistic awareness as the bottom line. Hill describes an experience during a rehearsal in the RFH not long before its closure in 2005: “I walked back [into the auditorium] and listened to the sound [coming from the platform] and thought, this is fine in here, this works in here. People sitting right at the back can hear what’s going on.”

He admits to minor drawbacks: “When you get down to those almost private moments of chamber music when Bach reduces it to one singer and a couple of players, then it is harder to pin it to every corner of the hall in the way that we might expect to have heard it in St Thomas’s [Leipzig] or the Nikolaikirche or wherever”. But ultimately every possible venue involves some compromises, and Hill reaffirms his confidence in the RFH by saying that “overall it does work. You get a great contrast: you get that sense of a crowd scene, which I love, you get this huge bank of people really getting quite angry about what’s going on and that’s certainly helped with our numbers.”

Baroque period-instruments perform at roughly a semitone lower than standard modern pitch. Is the choir happy with this? “Totally. We rehearse in 415 [Baroque pitch]. We start the first chorus in E flat minor on the piano”. (Bach’s written key is E minor.) It’s clear that pitch is another aspect of stylistic importance to Hill, marking the Bach Choir out from most similar-sized amateur groups. “We do most of our Bach at period pitch. But it depends: we gather that Bach moved the pitched about depending on what was going on, certainly with the motets which we might perform at modern pitch. But generally rehearsing Bach down a semitone is a good idea. It places the sound quite differently.”

With such an ‘historical informed’ attitude, it’s no surprise that Hill refuses to employ the incongruous might of the RFH organ. “We use two chamber organs: one in the middle for the Evangelist and one to the right with the second orchestra. We don’t do all that 32-foot reeds stuff”, he laughs. “I get letters every year asking me to reinstate it” (the hall’s organ was featured regularly during the Willcocks years), but Hill remains adamant that Bach shouldn’t be “Victorianised.”

J. S. Bach

He cites this as further proof that, under his direction, the Bach Choir has moved with the times. Hill appears sensitive to charges that the annual Matthew Passion is still preserved in the aspic of the Willcocks tradition. “Some people say the Bach Choir have done it like this for years, but we constantly renew it”. He mentions this year’s soloists: “We’ve got a new Evangelist in James Gilchrist. Chris[topher] Gillett was wonderful, but he had sung the Evangelist with us for ten years so we felt it was time for a change. James was very happy to do it – and very happy to do it in English too, and make it his own. And it’s looking as though he wants to do it next year as well”. Soprano Carolyn Sampson, mezzo Jane Irwin and baritone Roderick Williams are all making their Palm Sunday debuts too.

Hill is keen to explain that “I [am constantly] changing things with the choir, saying ‘I don’t think this works, let’s try something else this year’. There’s a constant moving forwards with it. There’s no sense that it’s like a statue.” He hopes that this year “we’ll tell a whole new story, as far as the Bach Choir is concerned.”

He is particularly keen to set right the “misunderstanding about how the choir goes about putting this together” recently propagated in a Times article by Hill’s former Cambridge colleague Mark Padmore. Working himself on a conductor-less performance of St John Passion with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Padmore was scathing about how “the Bach Choir has been doing the St Matthew in the same way for years,” and “despairs” about David Willcocks’s rehearsal plan printed in the new Novello edition of the score. Hill is quick to deny that the Bach Choir ever uses the plan itself: it’s “very helpful for people who haven’t a clue how to put this together with limited rehearsal times and budgets, but it’s never adopted by the Bach Choir”. Contrary to Padmore’s accusations about perfunctory rehearsals, Hill insists that “it’s actually done really thoroughly, with two orchestral calls with players who know it.”

Hill has yet to hear a choir perform in the newly refurbished RFH, other than his “old St John’s boys” and Westminster Abbey boys in Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He found the sound “definitely lively – the boys sounded bright and sparkly” which makes him excited about the possibilities. He hopes the improved acoustic will make the performance “an interesting and hopefully more rewarding experience for the singers”. The choir won’t be able to test it out “until the morning of the performance, alas”, but they will have rehearsed “very thoroughly for six hours the day before.”

Finally, does Hill feel the spirit of David Willcocks still looming large at these events? “No, not at all! I think he’d probably hate what I do!” Hill laughs. “He’s a good friend, but I think he’d feel very, very, erm…” – Hill pauses to search for the diplomatic thing to say, before eventually coming up with “… happy, to hear them singing well – he’d be very pleased by that”. Hill clearly has great respect for his predecessor and recognises that things were done differently in his day. “Like many musicians of the time, [Willcocks] didn’t come from a generation that was part of the early-music movement, whereas I’m a child of that. I’ve always been attached to it and believed in it. I come from another angle” to Willcocks. Hill stresses that, like Willcocks, he also loves the English Pastoral scene, “the icing on the cake” – but for him “the cake is made of different things.”

Hill finishes by summing up his ethos for the Bach Choir. “My fundamental beliefs are in stylistic performance that has to have integrity. You get good players around you who understand this music, and I think I – hopefully – have a feel for it, then numbers of performers are immaterial: it’s how you put it together. I hope we just do the right thing. We’re constantly thinking about it. I hope you’ll feel that we’re trying to bring a freshness to it.”

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