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.