wed 19/06/2024

Bach St John Passion, Les Arts Florissants, Christie, Barbican review – sombre but engaging | reviews, news & interviews

Bach St John Passion, Les Arts Florissants, Christie, Barbican review – sombre but engaging

Bach St John Passion, Les Arts Florissants, Christie, Barbican review – sombre but engaging

An atmospheric but unfocused reading, elevated by a fine Evangelist

On top form: Les Arts Florissants and William ChristiePhilippe Matsas

William Christie kicked off Passion season in London this year with a particularly sombre reading of the St John.

The veteran conductor brought his French choir and orchestra, Les Arts Florissants, and a line-up of relatively young soloists to the Barbican. They turned out to be variable, but the best of the voices elevated proceedings, as did Christie’s sensitive shaping of the music, the results always lyrical and engaging.

At the risk of labouring tired stereotypes, the performance here sounded more French than German. The orchestral tone was less distinct, quieter and lacking focussed in the counterpoint. Some loose ensemble in the strings also muddied the waters. But Christie was able to find other qualities, conveying well the music’s funereal atmosphere, which he maintained throughout with an air of relaxed nonchalance.

The most prominent figure in the orchestra was lutenist Thomas Dunford, the dominant voice in the continuo section. Dunford sat stage front, next to Evangelist Reinoud Van Mechelen, his instrument projecting well above the ensemble. Every aria, and many recitatives, began with an elaborate flourish, and most ended with a similar roulade across the strings. Some excellent continuo work from the rest of the section too, especially Myriam Rignol in her viola da gamba aria, but the theorbo was always dominant.

Reinoud Van Mechelen Christie led from the keyboard, a modest two-manual harpsichord. His playing was perfunctory, especially in the presence of such a fine continuo section, but for the choruses he rose to conduct the choir, really engaging with the singers and keenly shaping every phrase. The choir, around 20 strong, balanced well with the diminutive tone of the orchestra, but seemed lost in the dull acoustic of the Barbican.

Among the soloists, the finest performance was from Van Mechelen (pictured right by Senne Van der Ven) as the Evangelist. He has an agile and expressive voice, and well-judged dramatic delivery – that ideal balance between liturgical piety and dramatic engagement. The interplay between Van Mechelen and Dunford was particularly satisfying, with both infusing recitatives with variety and colour. Soprano Rachel Redmond also sang beautifully, her two arias both highlights. Redmond has a light, pure tone, a little lacking in colour but always highly expressive. Alto Jess Dandy and tenor Anthony Gregory were less impressive, both regularly overpowered by the small orchestra. Gregory also lacked precision, his melisma passages losing rhythmic focus. Dandy gave an expressive reading of the tender “Es ist vollbracht!,” but was again overpowered by the accompaniment.

More impressive were the two bass soloists, Alex Rosen in the surprisingly small roll of Jesus and Renato Dolcini in the surprisingly large role of Pilate. The exchanges between the two of them were well-paced and dramatically convincing, with the richness and tonal focus of both voices bringing suitable gravitas to their confrontation.

Christie and his ensemble were on top form in these later scenes, and any feeling of reticence in the earlier sections was now dispensed. The chorale preceding Christ's death, “In meines Herzens Grunde”, was sung a cappella, a nice touch that highlighted the expressive potential of this modestly scaled reading. And the final chorus, too, “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”, was more suggestive than explicit of the music’s depth. Christie offers Bach without high drama, relying instead on the subtlety of his ensemble and the expressive insights of his soloists. The results here were engaging, if variable, but were significantly elevated by many moments of magic among the solo arias.


Christie offers Bach without high drama, relying instead on the expressive insights of his soloists


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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May I humbly correct some inaccuracies in your very fair review? The chorale "In meines Herzens Grunde" comes before Bach's death. The chorale that follows Jesus'death is with Bass solo, solo cello & orchestra "Jesu, der du warest tot". The alto solo "Es ist vollbracht" is scored for viola da Gamba and continuo joined by the upper strings in the vivace section. The duet for the violas d'amore + continuo is "Erwäge…." for solo tenor.

Many thanks; I have gone in and made those changes on Gavin's behalf. Was amused by the slip that gave us 'Bach' instead of 'Christ'. If only because so many of us do believe that Bach IS God.

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