It seems odd to celebrate Luther’s uncorking of The Reformation 500 years ago by programming a pasticcio Passion (a Passion story pulled together from a selection of different settings), a form that Luther disliked; nonetheless John Butt’s ‘A Patchwork Passion’ occupied one of the three Prom slots on ‘Reformation Day’ on Sunday.
The patchwork pieces included sections from Passions by Walter, Schütz, J S and C P E Bach, Handel, Loewe, Wood, Gubaidulina and Pärt, as well as settings of The Seven Last Words by Haydn and MacMillan, Mendelssohn’s Christus and Stainer’s Crucifixion, all stitched together in chronological order.
The performances were generally good, if a little anodyne; the use of the same modern instruments throughout (played sensitively by the City of London Sinfonia) may have helped pull everything together with an inclusive timbre, but the loss of the squeaks and pops of original instruments for some of the early works made for a texturally dull experience. Sofi Jeannin conducted competently, handling homophonic 16th-century choruses and MacMillan’s gloriously expressive orchestral diminuendo al niente with equal skill, but, again, nothing seemed to shine in its own idiom.
Voice-wise, the BBC Singers sounded well blended, and their accounts of the early choruses displayed a subtle intensity. The vibrato came out in the bigger works when the volume needle hit mezzo-forte, but for Stainer’s ‘Fling Wide the Gates’ this was perhaps no bad thing, as it called to mind the true spirit of an Anglican parish production. The four soloists for the section on Pärt’s Passio were well-balanced, and brought out the composer’s tintinnabuli effects nicely. Praise, though, needs to go to the main soloists: David Shipley’s bass voice has a solid, focused resonance, and it was equally apposite for declaiming Schütz’ Jesus as providing the sonorous tolling in Gubaidalina’s ‘The Commandment of Faith’. The two tenor soloists both had bright, clear voices, again, at home with both ancient and modern repertoire.
Resurrecting the idea of a ‘Patchwork Passion’ must have seemed a good idea at the time, but its execution – particularly for a modern era, when radically different types of music needed to be incorporated – resulted in a lot of shoe-horning, and the duo of imperatives – to stick to the narrative, and to keep the components in chronological order – often gave rise to an unsatisfying listening experience. The first forty minutes, for example, were largely taken up with recitative; in a through-composed work, recitative has its function within the arc of the piece, and while a demonstration of the changes in the form across time might be of academic interest, it makes for dull listening. The insertion of works of Catholic and Orthodox traditions (Haydn, Macmillan and Gubaidalina) may have worked in terms of chronology and post-Reformation sensibility, but they seemed strange choices for the marking of a Protestant anniversary (and Haydn’s ‘Vater, vergib ihnen’ although in the right place historically, was not so in the Passion narrative). Above all, though, it was the move from one bleeding chunk to another that became uncomfortable. There’s a reason why Pärt’s Passio occupies only one track on a disc – it is a seamless garment, an almost-Zen exercise in the addition and subtraction of voices and instruments, and to pull out a section and lump it with other disparate works was a wrench to the ear, as it was with the sections of Mendelssohn or MacMillan.
A selection of Protestant-inspired motets through the ages might have made for a more prosaic programme, but it would have been musically more satisfying. This was, alas, more of a rag rug than a patchwork.