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Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff, Robert Davies – Dunedin Consort, John Butt

John Butt leads the Dunedin Consort in a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's sacred oratorio St John Passion. Featuring tenor Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist, bass Matthew Brook as Jesus, soprano Sophie Bevan, countertenor Tim Mead, tenor Andrew Tortise, and bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff as soloists. In addition to the ensemble performing on period instruments, further elements of both authenticity and intimacy were added by inserting other music used in the Leipzig Good Friday service that Bach himself would have heard and by inviting the audience to sing the responsory portions of the chorales that bookend the Passion. Recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall on August 20th 2017 as Prom 49.

With English subtitles

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

♪ St John Passion / Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 (1724)

(Performed within a reconstruction of the Leipzig liturgy for Good Friday Vespers)

1. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude – Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund, BWV 621 [00:00]*
2. Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630): Chorale – Da Jesus an dem Kreuze Stund, SSWV 113 [01:14]
3. Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707): Prelude in F sharp minor (abridged), BuxWV 146 [04:16]

4. Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Part One [05:50]

5. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude – O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, BWV 656 [39:42]
6. Johann Sebastian Bach: Chorale – O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, BWV 656 [43:02]
7. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude – Christus, der uns selig macht, BWV 747 [46:30]

8. Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Part Two [48:31]

9. Jacobus Handl (1550-1591): Motet – Ecce quomodo moritur justus [2:07:54]
10. Blessing  Der Herr segne dich und behüte dich [2:10:51]
11. Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630): Response – Gott sei uns gnädig und barmherzig [2:11:19]
12. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude – Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 657 [2:12:31]
13. Johann Crüger (1598-1662): Chorale – Nun danket alle Gott [2:16:56]

Nicholas Mulroy, tenor (Evangelist)
Matthew Brook, bass (Jesus)
Sophie Bevan, soprano
Tim Mead, countertenor
Andrew Tortise, tenor
Konstantin Wolff, bass
Robert Davies, baritone

Dunedin Consort
Conductor: John Butt

Director: Jonathan Haswell
Producer: Martyn Stevens

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London, August 20, 2017

(HD 720p)

* Start time of each work

Photos by Chris Christodoulou

John Butt conducts the Dunedin Consort

In October 1517, Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses, famously nailing them, in a provocative gesture, to the door of Wittenberg Castle church. Essentially an attack on clerical malpractice, written by a man who still considered himself a loyal Catholic, the document is widely regarded as triggering the Protestant Reformation, the impact of which was seismic, colouring every aspect of religious, political and cultural thinking to the present day.

Marking such an anniversary is inevitably daunting, though the Proms offered us an often fascinating day of concerts that carefully considered the Reformation's impact on musical history in a broadly non-secular context. The use of the vernacular in the liturgy and the democratisation of church services through congregational singing are integral to the Reformation's legacy, and the dominant forms that emerged from it – the chorale prelude, Passion music – have, above all through the influence of Bach, come to transcend the confines of Protestant practice.

We began with a lunchtime organ recital by William Whitehead and Robert Quinney. Whitehead is closely involved in a project to commission new chorale preludes to fill the considerable gaps in Bach's unfinished Orgelbüchlein, and he performed the world premieres of three works placed alongside Bach's own. Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Ein Feste Burg subjects Luther's most famous chorale to a process of rhythmic transformation and dislocation, while Jonathan Dove's treatment of the baptismal hymn Christ Unser Herr Zum Jordan Kam surrounds the melody with lapping figurations suggestive of the ceaseless movement of water.

Probing, unresolved dissonances underpin Daniel Saleeb's circumspect Erhalt Uns, Herr, Bei Deinem Wort, in acknowledgement of the anti-Catholic sentiment of the original text. Whitehead gave us most of the solos, including a fine account of Schumann's harmonically troubled Fourth Fugue on the Name of Bach. Quinney, a more flamboyant performer, took over for Mendelssohn's grand Third Organ Sonata in A Major and Bach's massive Prelude and Fugue in E flat major BWV 552, both played with formidable dexterity. The single duet, Samuel Wesley's pastoral Introduction to the Grand Fugue in E flat by Sebastian Bach, was done with superb grace.

The afternoon was given over to the BBC Singers and City of London Sinfonia under Sofi Jeannin for the oddly titled A Patchwork Passion, narrating the story of the crucifixion through a chronological survey of excerpts from works from Luther's time to the present day. Not all of it was completely successful. Nineteenth-century composers seemingly drew an inspirational blank when it came to Passion music, and the Processional to Calvary from Stainer's 1887 Crucifixion came over as awkwardly banal.

Elsewhere, however, there were revelations. The drastic austerity of a section from Heinrich Schütz's St Luke Passion (1653) finds its modern counterpart in Arvo Pärt's Passio of 1982. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's St Matthew Passion (1769) swipes his father's recitatives but takes the arias into operatic territory. Passion music by Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan, both working outside Protestant tradition, brought the sequence to a close.

The choral singing was immaculate, if occasionally over-refined: the Stainer might have impressed more if it had sounded forceful rather than polite. Characterisation, meanwhile, can be tricky in a composite work with a number of styles, though Christopher Bowen's forthright, no-nonsense Evangelist sharply contrasted with David Shipley's anguished Jesus. Thomas Elwin was impeccable in a series of tenor arias, CPE Bach's Wie Ruhig Bleibt Dein Angesicht above all.

In the evening came Bach's St John Passion, with John Butt and his Dunedin Consort making their overdue Proms debut with a performance that shed new light on the work by carefully contextualising it. Bach's Passion was originally heard during Vespers on Good Friday and Butt presented the full service with the Passion at its centre, flanked by hymns, organ voluntaries, even the closing benediction. The audience was asked to sing along with the Vespers chorales.

The Passion itself was preceded by Buxtehude's Organ Prelude in F sharp minor, played by Stephen Farr, and Bach's turbulent opening chorus made an unforgettable effect as its chords died away. Butt used larger forces than he might have done in a smaller venue, and the choral and instrumental counterpoint, though beautifully shaped, was occasionally smudged by the Albert Hall's foggy acoustic. Nicholas Mulroy made a superbly committed Evangelist, horrified on occasion by the tale he is telling. Matthew Brook's Jesus was at times strikingly angry. Countertenor Tim Mead, at his most beautiful in Es Ist Vollbracht, led the distinguished lineup of soloists in the arias.

Source: Tim Ashley, August 2017 (theguardian.com)

Nicholas Mulroy, Robert Davies

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

For the climax of the BBC Proms celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Butt and the Dunedin Consort performed Bach's St John Passion at the Royal Albert Hall in the context of Lutheran Vespers, with organist Stephen Farr performing chorale preludes by Bach and Buxtehude on the Royal Albert Hall Organ, and the audience being encouraged to join in the congregational chorales. The passion was performed by Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Matthew Brook (Jesus), with Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff and Robert Davies.

But if we were expecting the same stripped down approach to the passion that John Butt uses on the recording, then we were in for a bit disappointment. Part of Butt's ethos when recording Bach is not only textual fidelity, but research into the original performance traditions. This meant that the CD re-created the Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday Vespers, and used a total of ten singers to perform all the solos and the choruses, with a similarly small instrumental ensemble. At the Royal Albert Hall, Butt had a professional choir of 36 and an orchestra with based around 33 strings.

Thankfully, the performance from Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist showed that you did not need large forces to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mulroy was riveting, easily communicating music and text, and singing largely from memory, this was spine-tingling narration. Mulroy is a highly involved and vivid performer, bringing out the extremes of the passion story, and imbuing the music with a remarkable range of colour. But, as with every good Evangelist, it was the text which really counted and Mulroy's level of involvement and projection made a gripping evening.

Mulroy was matched by the dignified Jesus of Matthew Brook, who similarly used the words to devastating effect and somehow conveyed that he really did mean it. He sang with a trenchant firmness of line, and rather than being other-worldly was wonderfully human.

The other soloists did not always achieve the same degree of communicability, though it has to be admitted that singing Baroque music in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall is rather a fine art. Sophie Bevan was a beautifully focussed soprano soloist. "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" was sung with a lovely sense of joy, and some fine passagework, whilst Bevan was partnered by the magical sound of four baroque flutes. In "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" she found a real vein of expressive purity.

Tim Mead was poised and expressive in "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden", though perhaps a little too controlled, and he was partnered by some very fine oboe playing indeed. In "Es is vollbracht" he was movingly expressive, and in contrast to many of the fleet speeds in other movements here John Butt allowed the movement to unfold in its own time, with vivid contrasts in the middle section.

Andrew Tortise made "Ach, mein Sinn" quite dramatic and rather vivid. "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbeter Rücken" was beautifully considered and expressive, but seemed to lack the ultimate emotional punch needed. Here Tortise was partnered by the lovely sound of a pair of muted violins, whilst in "Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt", Tortise's fine performance was somewhat overshadowed by the vivid playing of the orchestral violins.

Bass soloist Konstantin Wolff was nicely correct in his arias, singing with fine control and nice sense of line but he seemed not to be able to project the underlying emotions across the Albert Hall's large spaces, this was a rather more intimate performance. In "Mein teurer Heiland" the balance with the chorus was not always ideal. Baritone Robert Davies sang Pilate with fine musicality but with a rather muted sense of the drama.

The chorus might, perhaps, have been larger than I was hoping for but musically they certainly did not disappoint. Butt's speeds throughout were often fleet, and his singers followed him admirably and produced a series of vivid and moving performances. The great opening and closing choruses were both kept moving, yet without skating over the surface so that the deep emotions of the music was conveyed too. In the turbae, the singing was fast, furious and wonderfully vivid.

The large orchestra was similarly impressive, not just in the myriad solo moments that Bach provides, but in the degree of expressivity found in the general run of the music.

The soloists sang in the opening and closing choruses and chorales, which is just as it should be and made the piece feel much more like a communal expression. The extracts of the vespers service provided a remarkable piece of context. The reconstruction is, to a certain extent, speculative but informative nonetheless. The way the Bach and Buxtehude organ chorale preludes flowed seamless from the chorales on which they were based, sung lustily in unaccompanied unison by the Prom audience, gave a vivid impression of the importance of context in this work. After the end of the passion, we flowed directly in Jacob Handl's funeral motet, and then on to the blessing, and a final pairing of chorale prelude and chorale.

In the programme booklet, John Butt talked about the important hierarchy of the different levels of singing in the church in Bach's day, from the congregation's chorales through the more sophisticated Renaissance-style motet singing (done with several singers to a part) to the more soloistic performance of Bach's own music, performed by very few singers. But this was something we rather missed in this performance which allied itself to modern choral traditions of performance. In terms of balance there was the usual problem of "can you hear the oboes?". In the livelier choral moments, we heard very much a choir and strings with both the oboes and the chamber organ rather disappearing into the texture.

It is unfair of a listener to expect a performance to re-create exactly the effect of a particular recording, but I could not help feeling that this performance of the St John Passion was a missed opportunity in a number of ways. The long running time (nearly three hours) and late start time meant that audience members were leaving before the end, and you wished that an afternoon slot could have been found for the event. That someone did not believe that a stripped down performance with just 10 singers could fill the Royal Albert Hall was a shame, Nicholas Mulroy showed how it could be done.

Source: Robert Hugill, August 2017 (operatoday.com)

Sophie Bevan

Nicholas Mulroy

Konstantin Wolff

Andrew Tortise

Tim Mead

Matthew Brook

More photos

See also

Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Audio video)

Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 – Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (HD 1080p)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Evgeni Koroliov (Bachfest Leipzig 2008)

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 – András Schiff

Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 – Benjamin Hulett, Griet De Geyter, Lore Binon, Tim Mead, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels, Andreas Wolf, Sebastian Noack – Kampen Boys Choir, Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven

George Frideric Handel: Rodelinda – Jeanine De Bique, Tim Mead, Benjamin Hulett, Avery Amereau, Jakub Józef Orliński, Andrea Mastroni – Le Concert d'Astrée, Emmanuelle Haïm (HD 1080p)

Antonio Vivaldi: Stabat Mater, & Nisi Dominus – Tim Mead, Les Accents, Thibault Noally

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