Reasons why Spring rocks: lighter evenings, chocolate eggs, and Passions. Composer J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) musical scoring of the biblical text tops the canonic bill of Western Classical music. Passions set to music were numerous throughout the 17th century, but few remain as treasured as his. The colossal works are traditionally hosted both functionally and informally throughout Easter, in Cathedrals, concert halls and pretty much anywhere big enough to house them. London’s vibrant Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall is hardly one to miss out on the fun, and puts on a hotly anticipated rendition of Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727) annually.
Interpretations of Bach can venture down a thousand avenues, and this Sunday’s swept along the ‘historically informed’ route. The collaboration between The Bach choir and the Florilegium orchestra combined two ensembles renowned for their accomplished Baroque performance style. Were it not for their modern surroundings, the set-up perfectly evoked the 17th century musical conventions that (we understand) were familiar to Bach.
J. S. Bach: Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen – O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (Chorus 1)
For anyone new to this work, it’s nothing short of a Revelation. Bach’s unaccompanied Suites prove one man may speak the world through a single voice, and the St Matthew Passion employs three choirs and two orchestras. Very much a work of its time - feminine melodies weep whilst their masculine counterparts blaze fire. Every note, every voice, every performer plays a part in narrating the story of Jesus from arrest to crucifixion. Symbolism is everywhere, from the cyclical melodic structure (foreshadowing the resurrection) to the recurrent triple meter (of the omnipresent Holy Trinity). Within each recitative, chorale and aria, ingenious harmonies colour the emotional spectrum of the religious text. It’s not a bad idea to bring a score to follow – experiencing the intricacies in HD makes them even more astounding.
Given what Bach packed into his life, it’s incredible that it wasn’t utterly chaotic. He balanced a vast compositional output with duties as a devoted teacher, organist, choirmaster, and father of 20 children (several of whom died in childhood). Yet his exquisite music feels effortless and unhurried. It is as if every one of his 1,000+ works just happened, without pain or graft; he just put quill to paper. His St Matthew Passion seems to expect the same of all of us, demanding a juggling of multiple intricately crafted components over a vast palette. Two and a half hours of total intense immersion is a Herculean performance task, particularly for any conductor. However, David Hill, director of the Bach Choir, seemed to bring the work to life as effortlessly as (we gather) it was first conceived, moving with balletic precision, swaying with the music and pulling his forces into a cohesive whole. The marathon was intelligently paced (if occasionally a little fast for my taste) and always convincing.
To play Bach risks degrading him; a continuous paradox for all Bach players. Simplicity of performance is both essential and exceptionally difficult, however if achieved, the music is free to flower in all its natural beauty. In a work as extensive as this, the challenge for each of the many players and their director is immense, but Hill’s ensemble nurtured the music with grace. The six solo singers were particularly captivating, and the epitome of modest self-assurance and clarity. Jennifer Johnson (Mezzo) and Sophie Bevan (Soprano) blended together beautifully in Aria 33 (So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen), their angelic lament hauntingly pierced by fiery chorus interjections. Henk Neven’s dark chocolate baritone, whilst a little undefined in the lower reaches, enveloped Aria 75 (Mach Dich, mein Herze, rein) in deep warmth. All the while this melodic effortlessness was subtly aided by a particularly sincere basso continuo. Aside from a slightly overplayed Viola de Gamba element, the deeply musical bassline was so much more than a functional foundation, and very much a musical pleasure in itself.
The profoundly moving performance was followed by an equally profound stillness. The Passion spent, an motionless silence was held in Hill’s physical command, his arms outstretched and fixed, cruciform.
J. S. Bach: Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (Aria 75), performed on Baroque instruments
You’d think that the Festival Hall’s size would aptly complement a work of this stature. However whilst the grand space certainly had its benefits, the sterile formality of a 2,500 seat auditorium threatened to disconnect the audience from the music’s intimacy. Sadly this starched shirts and straight back seats routine is in part to blame for the stigma of exclusivity attached to classical music. But to its credit the South Bank Centre is doing its best to engage everyone. From the hustle and bustle of its arts complex, to the picnic blankets that covered the floor during Sunday’s interval, it stands proudly by the motto emblazoned by its entrance: ‘A classical music season exclusively for pretty much everyone.’ Preach.