Saturday, 31 March 2018

Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Layton - St John Passion, 30 March 2018


St John’s Smith Square

Evangelist – Nick Pritchard
Christ – Neal Davies
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Hiroshi Amako (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass)

Polyphony
Britten Sinfonia
Stephen Layton (conductor)





This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here. More often than not, I had been in Germany, either for a Passion in Leipzig (most recently in 2011) or for Parsifal (most recently last year). A change is as good as a rest, though – sometimes, at least. This proved an impressive, indeed moving, performance from a good cast of soloists, the chamber choir, Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, and conductor Stephen Layton. An eighteenth-century church, ‘Queen Anne’s footstool’, is a not inappropriate venue, of course; the warmth of the St John’s, Smith Square acoustic certainly helped balance a certain dryness in what one might characterise as an ‘period-ish’, rather English approach.


This was certainly not a Roman Catholic Bach in the vein of, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – but nor, after all, was Bach a Roman Catholic. Nor was it really a very German Bach we heard, or perhaps better, nor was it one of the many German Bachs we heard. What was more on my mind, than placing the performance within performance tradition, however, was the thorny matter of anti-Semitism. Such has, of course, been a preoccupation of British news reporting over the past few days. Moreover, having been working on the life and work of Arnold Schoenberg for quite some time now, musical and linguistic coding – as well as more overt violence – have been very much in my thoughts too. What do we do about a text, a sacred text no less, which, were it from anywhere other than the Bible, we might approach with greater apprehension? It is a particular problem with St John’s Gospel, and a particular problem within that, of the telling of the Passion. What, moreover, do we do about those turba choruses, in which Bach’s musical mastery, his extraordinary ability to characterise the crowd, add a further layer of discomfort? I do not know. I am certainly not saying that we should necessarily change the words, either of Bach’s work, or the Gospel; nor, however, am I saying that we should not at least consider making such changes on occasion. I do think, however, that, in a post-Holocaust age, in which the Church has been forced to confront long-standing anti-Semitism amongst its earthly sins, we cannot airily declare that there is no problem, that this is ‘just’ a work of art; nor indeed that a work of art, however ‘great’, is far too important to be implicated.



For those choruses truly proved the beating heart, Christian, (anti-)Semitic, or otherwise, of the drama that unfolded here. Taken generally, yet not unvaryingly, at quite a speed, there was fury in them? Whose fury, though? The (Jewish) crowd’s? Ours? If the latter, then what was our fury concerned with? Those who crucified Christ? And if so, what might that mean on earth as well as in theology? The changing role of Bach’s choir, after all, prompts us to consider our own relationship to it. When it sings the chorales – here, quite beautifully, and occasionally, arrestingly, a cappella – it seems to be ‘us’, as congregants and/or audience. We feel its pain, and/or it ours. It comments, like a Greek Chorus; and yet, also, like that Chorus, it participates. Not for nothing was it a crucial model, more so even than Handel’s oratorio choruses, for Schoenberg’s children of Israel in Moses und Aron.


Another particular strength, I thought, was a keen sense of soloists, almost as figures in an aural painting, coming on stage to portray and to reflect. That is what they do in their arias and other solos, of course, but it somehow came across both with particular differentiation and yet also interconnection on this occasion. I am not quite sure I can explain how or why; perhaps it was just that each of the soloists was on fine form. Lines were clean, yet far from un-emotional. There was, however, no attempt to impose ‘emotion’, least of all anachronistic or otherwise inappropriate, heart-on-sleeve emotion upon the music. All manner of approaches can work, of course, but this did – and it seemed, rightly or wrongly, to be something of a collective decision. Much the same can be said of the playing of the Britten Sinfonia, I think. I might sometimes have missed a little greater warmth, especially from the strings, but my ears adjusted soon enough, and I came to appreciate the performance very quickly for what it was, not for what it was not. Obbligato passages were always well taken, without a hint of narcissism. As voices seemed to emerge from the choir – even though they did not, at least literally so, in this case – so did instruments sound very much as if emerging from the greater instrumental collective. Guiding this all, with a determined dramatic presence, yet also due musical collegiality, were the wise presences of Nick Pritchard’s intelligent, finely sung Evangelist and, of course, Layton as conductor. 


This was, then, not just an observance, insofar as a concert can or should be; it also made me think. And all the time, I kept returning to the turbulence of that seething opening chorus – as, I think, does Bach. Wagner himself never wrote a finer, more complete, more troubling instance of music drama.

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