Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion

St John Passion

Pilate – Andrew Kennedy
Jesus – Brindley Sherratt

Iain Farrington (organ)

Evangelist Quartet [Micaela Haslam (soprano), David Allsopp (countertenor), Stephen Jeffes (tenor) & Stephen Charlesworth (baritone)]

Endymion [Clara Biss (violin), Jane Salmon (cello), Gareth Hulse (oboe) & Robin O’Neill (bassoon)]

BBC Singers
David Hilll

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 17 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David HillThe first of two ‘Pärts’, if you like, the Proms celebrating the Estonian’s 75th-birthday with a dignified late-night performance of his “St John Passion” notable for one of the best-behaved audiences this reviewer can remember. Save for some cheering at the end, which went against the devotional and meditative spirit of the piece, those in the Royal Albert Hall were incredibly quiet throughout.

This was a big help in concentrating on the music, one of Pärt’s large-scale compositions to use the much-vaunted ‘tintinnabuli’ style of composition – that is, a form of almost-static harmonic writing that depends almost entirely on the pure major or minor triad. That definition implies that Pärt is merely adopting a harmonic technique used by composers for centuries, but he puts such an intense focus on the harmony and its components that in this case the listener soon loses all sight of related keys and even melodic development, becoming cocooned in a single tonality.

So it is with “St John Passion”, which in this performance spent a good 65 minutes of its 67 in the key of A minor. Not only that, it spun a web of relatively economical melodies, repeating each with subtle differences of volume and melody. That the performance increased slightly in tempo as it progressed mattered not, for it felt like an extended perfect cadence, the passion of Christ according to John taking place in an atmosphere that brought together a curious mix of contemplation and tension.

Andrew Kennedy. ©Ben EalovegaThe two soloists, Andrew Kennedy as Pontius Pilate and Brindley Sherratt as Jesus, were positioned at the back of the stage, some way behind the chorus – who played the roles of the chief priests and the baying mob of the public, demanding Christ’s crucifixion. There was less of a sense here of the clamour for Jesus to be crucified, due partly to the contemplative nature of the text. Kennedy was slightly removed emotionally, though this served to bring over his vulnerability as he presided over Christ’s trial. Brindley Sherratt was outstanding, bringing a rich and slightly mournful sound to each of his thoughts and asides as Jesus. These were subtly accompanied by Iain Farrington, getting the balance of the Royal Albert Hall organ just right, and the four members of Endymion, who supplied sensitive punctuation to each vocal statement, largely eschewing expressive techniques. Alongside them the four evangelists gave commentary, with David Allsopp’s countertenor particularly striking, and the unison at the death of Jesus was especially moving, followed by a poignant pause.

The final peroration, crowning the whole work, was gloriously full-bodied, the sudden richness of its major-key harmony delivering maximum impact. If anything David Hill could have worked this moment a little longer, yet as elsewhere in the work he was a careful and attentive presence, paying attention to each phrase and subsection without losing sight of the bigger whole. This fitting start to the celebration for Arvo Pärt showed the intensity of his sacred compositional style, a sure contrast with the more secular Fourth Symphony, due to receive its UK premiere at the Proms on 20 August.

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