Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment @ Royal Festival Hall, London

9 April 2009

Eastertime and Passions abound. Last week, the Gewandhaus and Leipzig Boys Choirs, under Riccardo Chailly, lent some authentic credentials to the St Matthew Passion at the Barbican.

On the day before Good Friday, a conductorless and choirless OAE brought a pared-down approach to the work at the Festival Hall.

About 20 minutes in there was a small explosion on the right-hand side of the auditorium (I wonder how that came across in the live radio broadcast?). Orchestra and soloists rebounded promptly from the shock (as did the audience) and gamely continued as though nothing had happened. Given that an alleged massive terror plot has just been foiled, it was a startling event.

Despite these unexplained fireworks, this was a performance that failed to catch fire in its first half. Perhaps the lack of a conductor explained why the enormous potential of this line-up the OAE plus Mark Padmore, Roderick Williams, Christianne Stotijn and Amy Freston as soloists was not quite capitalised on.

The narrative wasn’t driven forward with any real theatrical sense (this is after all a rattling good story even with the frequent times-out for poetic reflection), although Padmore’s Evangelist did grow considerably in dramatic stature in the second half.

The lack of an external eye was apparent too in the tentative movement assigned to each soloist, who shuffled centre-stage for their big numbers, to little discernible effect.

The lightweight, intimate quality of soloists doubling as choristers has its advantages, if not the full splendour that two choirs can bring. It was a lean, clean sound.

The secondary chorus Robert Murray, Charles Gibbs, Iris Julien and Laura Mitchell each had their opportunity also to shine in solos. Murray’s “Geduld, Geduld!”, with pulsing cello and organ accompaniment, was particularly bright and heartfelt.

Time stood still for Roderick Williams’ “Komm, ses Kreuz” and its gorgeous gamba obbligato. He was a Christ, lacking grandeur and weight, but with great beauty of tone and an easy likeability which would make the multitude flock to him.

This wasn’t the finest performance of the St Matthew Passion, lacking the electricity Gardiner and his regulars bring to it (or by all accounts the massed forces Chailly used), but it was far from routine. The magic of one of Western Art’s greatest masterpieces shone through, making it an ultimately moving and subtly powerful evening.

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