BBC Proms reviews

Prom 51: English Baroque Soloists/Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner – Bach (St John Passion) @ Royal Albert Hall, London

24 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

As the programmatic heart of Bach day, Prom 51 saw the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists joining forces under their founder, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, for a spectacular performance of the St John Passion.

It is an intensely solemn work (the neon back-lighting was muted to a funereal purple) and yet, as everyone loves to note, one of the most lavish and operatic of Bach’s compositions. Certainly the emotional crescendo contained in those 116 minutes, played without an interval break, added up to an incredible journey.

Tenor Mark Padmore has always taken the narrator’s role seriously; not only has he sung the evangelist in a number of high-profile interpretations of the John and Matthew Passions, but he is evangelical about the music, writing a number of articles on the subject, including the programme notes for this concert. It was clear from last night’s performance that Padmore has earned this authority; his voice was steadying and mellifluous one of reassurance yet bright and energetic, a subtle blend that was beautifully exemplified in the extended mellismas.

Far from fading by comparison, however, the other six soloists more than stood their ground. Peter Harvey made a powerful and engaging Christ, and Robin Blaze was quite superb in the alto role, both during his silky smooth laments and the brief, virtuosic explosion in his viola da gamba duet. Only Katharine Fuge’s soprano disappointed; though technically sound she inevitably lacked the purity of tone that a boy chorister can afford this role.

The Monteverdi Choir provided an impressive support for these protagonists. During the agitative and accusatory chatter in Christ’s trial (flagrantly anti-Semitic in its implications) every consonant was rung out for all it was worth, and the softer chorales and echoes, were sung with exquisite sweetness. Likewise the English Baroque Soloists offered a performance that was both generous and responsive.

Much of this success is no doubt due to that legendary Bachian JEG; his podium manner suggests a role that is more sculptor than conductor, blending and crafting his forces with elegance and precision. It was an exhausting but exhilarating evening, and the memory will long remain.

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