Bach’s St Matthew Passion – LSO/Christophers (Barbican, 16 April)

St Matthew Passion, BWV244

Stephen Roberts – Christus
John Mark Ainsley – Evangelist
Malin Hartelius – Pilate’s Wife/First Maid
Angelika Kirchschlager – Arias/Second Maid/Witness
Kenneth Tarver – Arias/Witness
Michael George – Arias/Peter/High Priest
Bas Ramselaar – High Priest/Pilate/Judas

London Symphony Chorus

Finchley Children’s Music Group

London Symphony Orchestra
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 16 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Despite Matthias Goerne withdrawing, I knew we were in for something special, particularly with Harry Christophers conducting (Frans Brüggen originally) and such singers as John Mark Ainsley and Angelika Kirchschlager. And from the majestic opening chorus, with its dance-like buoyancy and counterbalancing gravitas, right through to the equally majestic closing chorus, with its berceuse rhythms both recalling the opening chorus and gently closing the work, I was not proved wrong.

Of the soloists, John Mark Ainsley stood out, notwithstanding a duff page turn, resulting in his beginning to sing the wrong recitative – a mistake quickly rectified with grace and professionalism. Ainsley, having sung the role of evangelist on many occasions, apart from bringing the fruits of that experience to bear on his interpretation, set the narrative ablaze with a tenor that has clarity, flexibility, power and an almost unlimited tonal palette. Thus he was able to load Bach’s numerous appoggiaturas with greater expressive power while simultaneously colouring the words – witness the finely judged tenuto on “trauern” and the soaring falsetto on “zagen” (with that wonderful clash between sense and setting) in the garden of Gesthemane.

The young American Kenneth Tarver took the tenor arias, though with mixed success. His voice has a steely quality, and although the tone is well focused, it sounded pinched at the top, particularly early on. His diction was clear, his interpretation straightforward and not without a certain nobility. In the ’False Witnesses’ recitative, he matched his tone beautifully with mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager. She was a joy to hear, her rich timbre and expressive technique resulting in memorable performances of both “Buss und Reu” and “Erbarme dich”.

Soprano Malin Hartelius was not quite convincing. Despite a voice of great beauty, it lacked sufficient projection, and her interpretations were slightly wooden. The replacement Christus for Goerne, Stephen Roberts, was disappointing: his voice was a little unstable and sounded tired quite early on; ditto with Michael George, who sang the bass arias. Dutch bass-baritone Bas Ramselaar, who sang the roles of the High Priest, Pilate and Judas, was however excellent, well-characterised, and a bright, clear tone.

The London Symphony Chorus was in fine form, with the antiphonal effects from the double-choir configuration clear and precise, the turba choruses genuinely thrilling and the chorales sounding as though they were hewn from marble, with the terraced dynamics acting as bass-relief. The Finchley Children’s Music Group, who provided the chorale in the first chorus and further support for some of the First Part, was also quite wonderful, with a clear, penetrating sound and good intonation.

The London Symphony Orchestra, also configured as two smaller orchestras, further enriched by their own organ continuos, responded to Christophers’s fluid and nuanced conducting style without effort. My only complaint was a certain undesirable homogeneity of sound that is unsuitable for baroque music (although this was offset by the introduction of a bass viol as an obbligato instrument). And indeed, all the obbligato parts were well executed, demonstrating these musicians’ flair and adaptability.

Harry Christophers, a conductor of considerable experience in the fields of both early and choral music, did a wonderful job in keeping the textures transparent given the relatively large forces at his disposal, and revealing his expertise in adapting baroque performance practice to modern instruments – for example, using less vibrato, a dryer string tone and different methods of phrasing.

Tumultuous applause from a full house left me thinking that there were wasn’t many disappointed by not having heard Matthias Goerne.

  • Second performance, Sunday 18 April at 7 p.m.
  • LSO
  • Barbican

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