Friday, February 24, 2006

A Passion for Bach

It may surprise the readers of some music blogs but Osvaldo Golijov was not the only composer to set the Passion story to music. With round-trip fares from New York to London going for less than $200 can you afford not to be in Norwich on Saturday 1st April? The venue is the great Norman cathedral with its 14th and 15th century stained glass. The work is the more tender and intimate of Bach's two surviving Passion settings, his St John. The chorus is the highly acclaimed Keswick Hall Choir, the instrumentalists are the award winning (and all girl) Brooke Street Band who specialise in baroque music, and the top soloists include Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks as the Evangelist and Colin Campbell as Christus.

With such sublime music, such a glorious setting, and such a stellar line-up of performers why let 3500 miles of water stop you from enjoying one of the musical events of the year? Tickets are available from the ever-helpful Prelude Records in Norwich, and I will be delighted to provide any more help to anyone wanting to attend via the email address in the side-bar. I would suggest making a two week vacation of it and taking in the Hilliard Ensemble singing the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsories on Good Friday in Blythburgh Church as well, but I'm told that has already sold out. So hurry before the tickets for the St John Passion go as well.

The genius of Bach has been expressed no better than by author, cyclist and fellow pilgrim Anne Mustoe (see my post Lux Aeterna and not Ligetti) in her wonderful book Amber, Furs and Cockleshells ......"For me, there is music, and then there is Bach. Bach is transcedent. He is the sun, whose light blots out the feeble rays of other composers. There are many whose music I enjoy, but I would throw their entire opus on the bonfire to save one fugue of the divine Bach."

The two photos are of the powerful wire-mesh sculpture of the Crucifixion by David Begbie. I wrote about it in my article Pilgrimage, and you can see it installed in the Anglican shrine at Walsingham here in Norfolk. Images from David Begbie's web site.

Now playing - Benjamin Britten's recording of Bach's St John Passion made in the Snape Maltings with Peter Pears as the Evangelist. It is sung in the English translation by Pears and Imogen Holst, and is suffused with the same humanity that fills every bar of Britten's own compositions .

If despite my advocacy a transatlantic trip is still out of the question Music of the Baroque is also performing the St John Passion in the Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Chicago at 8.00pm on 27th February, more details via this link.
Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Master Tallis' Testament.

4 comments:

Pliable said...

This has kind of started a 'Passions that aren't Bach or Golijov' thread going.

An email just arrived pointing out this Passion from the contemporary Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. The article is from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Every year, the Eastman School of Music celebrates the music of an internationally renowned contemporary composer, and on Wednesday at the Eastman Theatre the warm glow of that spotlight was shining on Louis Andriessen.

The great Dutch composer, who's been in town this week for a three-day festival in his honor, is best known for creating a style of music that marries minimalist techniques with such diverse and popular influences as jazz and boogie woogie. La Passione, the Andriessen work that opened the Eastman Philharmonia's concert under Brad Lubman on Wednesday, suggests something of that style. But it's also clearly an advancement on it.

Composed in 2002, La Passione is an extended orchestral song cycle that sets six prose poems by Dino Campana, an Italian poet who died in 1932 after spending the final 18 years of his life in an asylum. As you might imagine, the verse from this poet is fantastically surreal and sometimes downright gruesome. Even in the opening "A song breaks," the poet writes that his garden actually "breaks out in a chain of weak sobs." Pain, suffering and a descent into madness were the leitmotifs of Campana's life.

Apparently, Andriessen decided that the bright repetitiveness of minimalism wouldn't suit this subject (a good call, I think), and so he opted instead for a sort of cross between a Baroque passion and concerto grosso for mezzo-soprano, violin and orchestra. For the all-important vocal soloist, Andriessen wanted something as far removed from a traditional Romantic sound as possible, so he set his verse in a bit of a singsong manner. And he found a mezzo-soprano, Cristina Zavalloni, who could sing avant-garde music with pop sensibilities.

Zavalloni, who was here Wednesday to perform with the Eastman Philharmonia, proved to be an ideal soloist. She sang with a luminous voice that avoided vibrato at all costs, and that gave her instrument a surreal and sometimes sexless sound that really captured the dreamscape quality of the words. She was even better as a kind of performance artist, posing in antagonistic stances, and looking psychologically worn as the poetry suggested greater mental anguish.

Pliable said...

And clearly putting the dead guys in the lead let's flag up Heinrich Schütz who composed both a St Matthew and St John Passion.

Haydn's 'The Seven Last Words on the Cross' is really a Passion setting, and then there are various treatments of the Passion by Obrecht, Vittoria, Guerrero, Byrd (for soprano, alto, and tenor)and the grossly under-rated Jacob Handl (1550-91).

And that is only for starters ...

Pliable said...

The copy I received for the Louis Andriessen Rochester review posted in the first comment had chopped the final few paragraphs and disenfranchised violinist Monica Germino.

So to correct that here are the missing words:

Zavalloni, who was here Wednesday to perform with the Eastman Philharmonia, proved to be an ideal soloist. She sang with a luminous voice that avoided vibrato at all costs, and that gave her instrument a surreal and sometimes sexless sound that really captured the dreamscape quality of the words. She was even better as a kind of performance artist, posing in antagonistic stances, and looking psychologically worn as the poetry suggested greater mental anguish.

Violinist Monica Germino accompanied Zavalloni with effortless virtuosity, shaping phrases that seemed like diabolic commentary on the singer's words. This was a tough score that included unusual instruments (together the modern synthesizer and ancient sounding cimbalom created a wonderfully ambiguous sonic mix), and Lubman deserves credit for giving a tight and intelligent rendition.

One of the big influences on Andriessen was Stravinsky, and so Lubman and the Eastman Philharmonia ended the concert with that composer's The Rite of Spring. There are a couple of legitimate ways to interpret this piece. One can strive to bring out structure and texture. Or one can just go nuts.

I'm happy to report that Lubman chose the latter approach. He pushed tempos to the extreme in "Ritual of the Rival Tribes." And the sacrifice music was relentless. It proved Lubman is not just a great avant-garde conductor, but a great conductor — period.

Vanessa Lann said...

Let's not forget Tan Dun's "Water Passion" after Saint Matthew (which was an indirect inspiration for aspects of my own flute concerto, "Resurrecting Persephone")...