The Estonian Arvo Prt turns 75 in September and, with the accolade of being selected as a BBC Proms anniversary composer, his seminal Latin setting of the Passion according to St John probably the most aurally-striking since those of J.S. Bach was accorded an atmospheric late-night performance.
The scoring and voicing is idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream settings, but as always with the composer thoroughly thought through. Much draws on tradition, particularly Schtz: the choir sings a brief introduction and postlude, as well as the traditional turbae interjections; the roles of Christ and Pilate are taken by solo bass and tenor, respectively. The accompaniment is provided by organ and an ensemble consisting of violin, oboe, bassoon and cello. (Perhaps a nod towards Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?)
Prt’s most individualistic twist is to assign the role of the Evangelist to a quartet of soprano, counter-tenor, tenor and bass sometimes in full, at other times using different combinations of voices and Micaela Haslam, David Allsopp (primus inter pares), Stephen Jeffes and Stephen Charlesworth were the star performers on the night, with perfect blend, diction and intonation. The Endymion ensemble made much more of what can become a rather perfunctory accompanying role, phrasing their lines sensitively and providing much sweetness as they weaved and intertwined with the Evangelists.
However, I came away feeling that the rest of the performance had been rather underpowered. Not that Brindley Sherratt as Christ and Andrew Kennedy as Pilate were low in volume: rather, they seemed less attuned to the austere beauty of the music, their vibrato often muddying Prt’s carefully chosen intervals. The 26-strong BBC Singers sang with verve and subtlety, but even at their loudest never quite gave their sporadic contributions the necessary impact I felt it needed a choir of at least twice the size.
In charge of the proceedings were the experienced hands of David Hill, and it was a typically modest and unshowy performance no mean feat, in vividly communicating the richness of the music and the Latin text. Happy birthday, Arvo!