St. Matthew Passion (Barbican, 3 April 2015)

Popular wisdom has is classical music can bring out the best in you (calm you down, make you smarter). This Good Friday Bach brought out a spectacular amount of enthusiastic, highly engaged coughing from the audience.

Academy of Ancient Music | Choir of the AAM
Richard Egarr
director & harpsichord
James Gilchrist Evangelist
Matthew Rose Jesus
Elizabeth Watts soprano
Sarah Connolly alto
Andrew Kennedy Mark Le Brocq tenor
Christopher Purves bass(-baritone)

Before going I warmed up by reading a review of a different performance by a completely different team (as you do). The author made a point of saying how intimate it felt. Well, I didn’t feel any intimacy in this particular instance. I was waiting for some/any emotion to overtake me but in the end my mind wandered (to pleasant things, true).

I did enjoy it quite a bit on an intellectual level (oh, the mighty structure! the dialogue between the two choirs and the soloists etc.) but I didn’t feel religious fervour or abandon. In the end it felt too Lutheran and my Baroque wiring is mostly of Italian origin. Case in point: there was precision aplenty, impressively adhered to by Egarr and Co. with some perfectly timed interventions by the choir. There were moments of great energy that came off vividly and almost memorably, interspersed with introspective bits; all very logical. If anything it felt like a well done thing performed with care. But I was hardly moved. For that I fault Herr JS.

The Evangelist was (understandably) really into the story, very vivid voice acting. Though sounding like a massive worrywart rather than intimate storyteller, he was always engaging and my favourite part of the evening. It’s been a while since I was so eager for the next bit of recit. SC’s voice sounded lovely from the getgo and very at home within the (very disciplined “everybody in their place”) oratorio format. Pity the alto part seemed to call for a slew of pp sad and introspective arias and little else. I’d heard EW live before (as Zerlina) and wasn’t quite convinced. In this outing I caught a rather evocative, full middle, which I liked a lot better than the perhaps imprecise top.

As often with Baroque, there was a lot of wind instrument accompaniment for the solo arias. Come the second or third soprano aria, the oboe – whilst sounding rather nice – was so damn loud I could not focus on Watts’ voice for love or money. All I could hear was the oboe (west left side, the other orchestra was effectively blocked by a giant leaning head smack dab in front of me), going to town recital-mode. “Some of my best friends are oboists” – by which I mean I really like all the woodwinds, possibly better than I like sopranos. But if there are other things in the mix I’d like to hear those too (even the sopranos).

Later, in the middle of one of the alto arias where the main tune was carried by the flute, Mr Oboe, ever so mezzoforte and above even when playing the bass line, gave us an explanation of sorts. His part went along the lines of: tu. tu. tu. tu. tee. tu. tu. tu etc. – for about 15 minutes. I feel your pain, buddy. Still, curb your enthusiasm a little when you get that much coveted main tune. We can hear you below the soprano.

The perils of sold out shows. During every – and I mean every – break in the music/singing/recitative the audience greedily joined in via an impressive variety of coughs and sneezes with the increasing frequency and stridency of summer shower droplets against the window pane. In the midst of (yet another) elegiac aria towards the end, someone 2-3 rows ahead and 20 people to my right surprised us with their own wrapping paper accompaniment. It went on for so long, half the people in the row immediately ahead of me turned to marvel at the solid performance. I can assure you it was as incisive and memorable as Mr Oboe’s antics. To be fair, the main hall of the Barbican was rather dry yesterday. But not too dry for yours truly to zzzz off at the tail end of the Passion.


About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on April 5, 2015, in barbican, baroque, live performances and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. ah ha! Barbican! but you remember how many times i asked you about the size of this hall? It really sounds to me you lost all sorts of intimacy + sound balance in the hall (the way you described was so similar to my feeling in Symphony Hall here in boston.) I have heard this piece 4 times live.. and i have to say the two equally GREATEST were in VERY small settings: 1 in a very small and intimate church in east Berlin, we walked in, put in 7EUR in the donation basket, and walked up to row 7 or so… the 2nd was in a room in think 1/3 size of Wigmore Hall with only 12 singers (total!!) and some 12-14 players total in 2 orchestras! The time i heard it even in my favorite Jordan Hall here in Boston, the balance was not that great (this one i faulted the quality of the entire group… the friend i brought along fell asleep…) and finally in Symphony hall i complained very loudly where everything was lost–sounds like what you described here…

    of course it’d be great if i attended the same event for compare/contrast, but i very skeptical of anything but small halls + just the right combo of singers.. some can be brilliant but with just too much vibrato or “strange” tone that makes all the combos out of whack 🙂

    • and i’m quite surprised to hear the baroque (was it?) flute over-powered the soprano!
      also, the alto has some of the most beautiful arias! as i havn’t heard SC in this, i can’t really say much.. except that it really takes certain interpretation + vocal tone to bring out the emotion.. and for me it was only 1 occasion i encountered that (in church in Berlin) — this is of course subjective, but when someone sings and suddenly you “feel” it, then you get, else you just leave the hall confused what all the fuss was about…

      (oh, now i recall a 5th performance, this one in los angeles where i chose to sit “behind” the chorus simply because in front + up high in disney hall = no hear nothing.., still, not right sound balance..)

      • It was the oboe that overpowered (it also overpowered SC, it was mad, not sure how it sounds on Spotify). SC sounded most beautifully and she was on it as far as emotion, I just like a bit of variety of emotion in the music – can’t take too much mournful music).

    • Can’t say I’m a fan of the Barbican but for some reason it houses a lot of star studded Baroque music. I also suspect it matters where you sit. I had a ball from second row at Alcina but this time I was sitting at the very back of the circle. It’s a rather big hall so I guess it simply can’t provide intimacy when needed.

  2. Looks like they’ve posted up the album on Spotify.

    Is it me or does the chorus sound a bit like they’ve just walked in from a vintage Queen album? And what is he doing with the tempi? It’s like he’s driving with a spasming brake foot.

    • oh cool! let me go check (though i had just sat through 3-hr of ton koopman.. but why not get started!)

    • i hope that was not my internet suddenly slowing tempo down to 1/2 speed half way thru that first chorus?

    • *me goodness.. the elastic tempo.. SC’s tone is so lovely.. but “Buß und Reu” was quite a ride (with some decoration..) ..

      *maybe i should compose my running commentary elsewhere and post here 😀

      *for example, now we’re at the soprano’s 1st aria.. and the whole thing sounds quite disjointed somehow.. like all of them with their own agenda instead of carrying the story across.. conductor with his fun-for-all make-you-guess tempo.. quite raucous opening scene (reminds one of entering a flea market..), and the chopping doesn’t help as every i get a 1/2 sec “click” pause between tracks..

      *ok, i really have problem with “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken”, and she’s also having to keep up with the rubber-band tempo, esp. toward the end.. but it’s a case of “too much” decoration + strange phrasing..

      *wow, the chorus, flea market.. but i think it’s the conductor’s idea judging by his tempo along the way… just before “ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen”..

      *yep, more decoration + “new” phrasing from the tenor (shuffling words into different spots..) i think the conductor’s suggesting all of this because it’d be quite surprising if all soloists independently doing similar things… LOST in all of this is that he’s _not_ carrying the emotion of the aria across… really a decoration exercise!

      Sure, you can argue that my ears might be used to hearing certain things… but i’ve heard enough of this to say at least if it carries any emotion (maybe!).. in fact at this point i a bit pissed already.. perhaps time to go home, D, i hope you don’t mind too much spamming, but man, i’d have had PLENTY to say had i heard this live… on top of perhaps some sound-balance deal…

      • Why no, thank you for the commentary! You know the piece way better than I do 😀 I’m glad I wasn’t weird questioning the lack of emotion. Might have to apologise to Herr IS though…

    • I think that’s kinda how Egarr usually conducts (rock’n’roll stylee)

      • but it’s not rock’n’roll, it’s freeway traffic jam style! (let me go look for a link…, here :-)) . i’ve been resisting coming back for the rest though ‘d like at some point since really like SC’s tone (but the decorations are really major distraction, that and traffic-jam-style tempi)

        i think someone cheated and brought in his modern oboe 😉

        the emotion shortage you heard is likely where you sat, i even drew some geometry (and distance to left vs right ears) to explain what i heard last time in symphony hall 😀 . in contrast to my experience with handel + haydn ‘s performance, when heard from microphones placed on stage this performance gave me all distractions whereas H&H’s had a nice flow to it where you can listen for balance + interactions + emotions..

        • Interesting stuff (traffic jam). I was rather central though at the back and under the “roof” of the balcony, which worried me, as at ROB, if you sit under the boxes the sound can get very muffled. Well, my budget was £15 😉 so that’s what that gets you.

    • Stray! you must go to cd1 track 38! what’s going on?! where’s the orchestra?! and multi-chorus parts!! 🙂
      (D, you could go there too, but if you don’t know the piece well you wouldn’t know what crime they’ve committed 😀 )

      • — actually once there, don’t stop, go directly to cd2 track 15! .wow. Actually once one gets used to the strange tempi at the beginning, it “disappears”.. (in fact the most disruption is the cutting of the tracks, very annoying, totally cutting the flow)

        — Back to cd2 track15: actually in this whole cd-set: the orchestra part is very minimal, very interesting and different.. for this particular aria, simply heart-breaking-ly beautiful, all credits go to SC’s gorgeous tone + sensitive phrasing. She’s left on her own (by intention) and her musicianship carries the entire aria through, .beautiful.

        — the minimal orchestra gives cd2 a story-telling mood, a feeling of you walking into a town-hall meeting and found yourself in the middle of it all with voices coming from front/behind/left/right. This is strategic i think as the microphones seem to be placed right in the center of action.

        — next up: cd2 track35: i really love that she has all to herself to express, again minimal orchestra, very effective.

        — i don’t understand the obsession of track-cutting, esp. so excessively on a piece like this where the recitative is very abrupt and sometimes in “between” various phrases. 3 cds with total 130+ tracks, with many a few tens of seconds and interuptions everywhere, ack!

        — cd2 is very pleasant. so it seems the first 1/2 of cd1 is some sort of knee-jerk-seeking-reaction bit to show “look, my take is very different”.. once we have accepted it, it’s quite enjoyable (if one can ignore 120+ interuptions due to track cutting…)

        — GOOOOORGEOUS plucking! to “komm süßes kreuz”, so it seems he cut out the gamba completely (or put it waaay burried), only to theorbo + organ, a very personal take. very lovely phrasing too. (cd3 track 3)

        — onto golgotha we march…

        — cd 3 track 9+10 should not be separated.. here she comes, “Ach Golgotha”…

        — yes, anyone looking for chorus parts in end of cd1 + cd3 will be disappointed, very minimal, quite a different take, i actually like it. best to not have any notion of the passion when having a go at this..

        — so there you have it, i can’t really say anything about the “emotional flow” of the work simply due to track disruption. so, perhaps, sitting in row 5-10 center in Barbican might be the way to absorb it :-).

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