1 April 2012

Closest to Bach

It felt like the closest that I’ve got to JS Bach when we heard the St Matthew Passion last night. It was performed by the Llewellyn Choir accompanied by the Llewellyn Sinfonia and conducted by Rowan Harvey-Martin at the Canberra Girls’Grammar School hall. Why the closest? I think because it’s storytelling in German. The music remains glorious, but the essence is the story, recited in German by the Evangelist and sung in person by several solo singers and the choir as the People. The words are the essence. It was likely first performed in Thomaskirke, where Bach worked at providing music each week, on Good Friday in 1727. This was work for Bach but it was work of a believer for presentation to other believers. It’s a Passion, a reciting of Christ’s suffering on the cross, the essence of the Christian story. And from my reading of dictionary.com and the Shorter Oxford, this is the origin, from Middle English and mediaeval Latin, of our common word, passion.

It’s a long work, written for soloists, double choir and double orchestra. It was to be performed in two halves, before and after the sermon on Good Friday. The score is further divided into three parts: a narrative using biblical text; various recicatives, arias and choruses; and the chorales. It’s music that is subject to the story and the demands of the people, the claps of thunder, sadness or fear or rejections of the apostles are all expressed clearly. I revelled in the big chorale sections and loved the several returns of the main choral theme, sometimes slower, sometimes livelier, usually with varying words. I enjoyed the dignified Evangelist as he told his story that I wished I could understand without looking at a projected translation, I loved the instrumental accompaniments with the solo singers: violin, cello, organ (I think this is the same chamber organ used by Igitur Nos last week), harpsichord, flutes or oboes. I enjoyed the autal and contrapuntal movements left to right of the choirs and also the orchestras. And it’s an impressive theatre. It looks to be carefully set up for sound, although perhaps for a bigger rather than a precise sound. And it’s pleasantly human in dimensions; it has a massive stage but you still feel close. (Too bad about the noisy aircon). From the orchestra, I particularly noticed the clarity of the two single basses, and that glorious little but persistent organ sound. This music is dignified and ordered, but more than instrumental Bach, it is subordinate to words. A stunning piece of beauty well performed. Congratulations to all involved.

The Llewellyn Choir and Llewellyn Sinfonia performed JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Canberra Girls’Grammar School hall. Key performers were Rowan Harvey-Martin (conductor), Michael Martin (Evangelist, tenor), Stephen Bennett (Jesus, bass), Rebecca Collins (soprano), Christina Wilson (contralto), Rohan Thatcher (bass).

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