Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John [UK premiere]
Natalia Korneva (soprano)
Viktor Lutsyuk (tenor)
Fyodor Mozhaev (baritone)
Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)
Oleg Kinyayev (organ)
St Petersburg Chamber Choir
Chorus and Orchestra of the Kirov Opera
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 25 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A small but ’committed’ audience was present for one of the highlights of this year’s Proms, the UK premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John – a merging of the ancient and modern that is conceptually impressive and, at times, musically inspired.
The work had its inception in ’Passion 2000’, a project in which four composers – from four different cultures – wrote on each of the four ’official’ gospels in celebration of the impending new millennium, as well as the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Along with those of Wolfgang Rihm, Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun, Gubaidulina’s Passion recreates the form for the spiritual and musical present. In her case, this meant confronting the Russian Orthodox tradition forbidding instruments and direct representation in its services. Her solution has been to merge its liturgical essence with the musical idiom she has evolved over more than two decades: a ’St John Passion’ whose theatrical dimension is subsumed in the gravity of the narrative leading to the Crucifixion. The ’St John Easter’ followed a year later, and continues the narrative through to the Resurrection, with an attendant increase in those affirmative qualities which point up the distinction between the two parts and round out the overall conception.
Much of the work’s theatrical aspect derives from intersecting St John’s telling of the Crucifixion with that of St John the Divine’s vision of the Apocalypse as told in Revelation, a potent temporal and emotional contrast. This combining of austere narrative with visceral intimation can be perceived at all levels, not least the juxtaposition of musical ideas and orchestral sonority. Yet what could easily become mannered or predictable over 150 minutes retains its intensity thanks to the concentration of Gubaidulina’s language, and her concern for continuity between sections – such that even the ’sceptic’ listener adjusts to the unfolding of events as if part of an imaginary act of worship.
Much of that involvement stems from the commitment of the performers who, having given the premieres of both Passion and Easter components, are fully conversant with what Gubaidulina has written and the motivation it requires. Gennady Bezzubenkov carried the narrative with assurance, his dark though humane timbre mid-way between Orthodox priest and a heretic Gurnemanz. More vivid in impact, the remaining soloists were mindful of the devotional context from which their contributions derived. The two choruses made the most of those passages where they become Christ’s supporters and detractors, evoking the antagonism of the crowd in unnerving terms.
Valery Gergiev directed with evident feeling for the experience that Gubaidulina is intent on conveying. The large orchestra, sparingly employed and with an atmospheric synthesiser contribution in the Passion, functions in ways not dissimilar from that used by composers of sacred concert works such as Penderecki and Tavener, albeit with a mastery in the integration with voices that reaches another level entirely. The Royal Albert Hall organ sounded impressively in the ample resonance, the acoustic coming very much into its own. That the audience greeted the composer with a largely standing ovation says much for the sense of involvement generated over the course of the work – one which powerfully reaffirms for the present the validity of the experience it embodies.