wed 17/04/2024

Bach Passions, Dunedin Consort, Mulroy/Jeannin, St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral/Queen's Hall, Edinburgh review - twin peaks | reviews, news & interviews

Bach Passions, Dunedin Consort, Mulroy/Jeannin, St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral/Queen's Hall, Edinburgh review - twin peaks

Bach Passions, Dunedin Consort, Mulroy/Jeannin, St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral/Queen's Hall, Edinburgh review - twin peaks

Scaling the heights of Saints Matthew and John within a week

The Dunedin Consort in rehearsal for the St John Passion

The annual St Matthew Passion from the Dunedin Consort is one the most reliably beautiful jewels in Edinburgh’s musical year. They do the St John Passion much less frequently; in fact, this is the first time I’ve heard them do it, maybe motivated by its tercentenary this year.

Doing both of the passions in the space of a week is pretty much unprecedented, however, both for the performers and for the Edinburgh audience, and experiencing both in seven days not only allowed comparisons but deepened the relationship between these complementary Bach masterpieces.

Much of that was down to the work of the directors. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy is the Dunedin Consort’s Associate Director. In one of their first, and most impressive, concerts out of lockdown in 2022, he directed the consort in the Matthew Passion without once raising a finger, doing so much hard work in rehearsal that the actual performance felt like a miracle of collective telepathy rather than a conducted concert. This year, they transferred that superpower onto the John Passion, and the result flowed like an organic improvisation, with every twitch of emotion or drop of spiritual power exploited to the max (★★★★).

Mulroy’s vision of the piece isn’t noticeably radical, but its very naturalness made it as clear as it was gripping. Every so often a performer would stand to the front of the orchestra rather than amidst the other singers so as to underline the intensity of the emotion and to increase the connection with the audience, such as in the tenor aria of remorse after Peter’s denial, or the beautiful bass/choir chorale after Jesus’ death. Most of the time, however, the soloists were drawn from the small chorus, mostly singing one-to-a-part, reinforcing the sense of this as a community collectively grieving rather than giving an organised performance.

TBeth Taylorhose singers were masters of their craft. Mulroy’s isn’t a tenor voice that I’ve always loved, but he uses it with such expressivity that it’s always completely compelling. Little phrases of the Evangelist were lingered over to express meaning I’d seldom before noticed: never before has the chill night air felt as important to the story as when Mulroy’s voice seemed to pale over “denn es war kalt” in Part One, and “Ach, mein Sinn” felt like an act of self-scourging. As Jesus, Stephen Loges had a little touch of gravel to the voice which slightly dialled down the character’s humane warmth, and was a little too forceful in “Mein teurer Heiland,” but his identification with the text was always complete. Beth Taylor’s wine-dark mezzo-soprano was used to great effect in both her arias, and the transformation from limpid sadness to galvanised victory in “Es ist vollbracht” was thrilling (Taylor pictured above).

Anna Dennis sang the soprano arias with all the conviction and powerful beauty that we’ve come to expect from her. That very power came to be a problem in the choruses, though. When the chorus comprises only eight singers, balance is crucially important, but Dennis’ voice dominated those of the other women, capturing the acoustic of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in a way that seemed to dwarf the other singers. That’s probably an unlucky quirk of the venue more than anything else, and it lessened as the performance progressed (or did I just get used to it?). It was still rather unfortunate while it persisted, however, even if it didn’t stop the turba choruses from sounding thrilling, like being caught in musical crossfire.

The other great source of the drama was the orchestra, the thirteen players imbuing every scene with drama and onward sweep. The tangy edge to the string playing gave the music a terrific bite, reinforcing the story’s atmosphere of pain, and they rushed headlong into their runs at the approach to Golgotha, as though willing the narrative onwards. That made the softer sound of the two violas d’amore all the more poignant when they arrived in the “Erwäge” aria, and Jonathan Manson’s viola da gamba obbligato seemed to melt in the air during “Es ist Vollbracht”.

But if John was great then Matthew came close to perfection (★★★★★). Part of that may have been the altogether more welcoming acoustic of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, where the blend was more secure and the balance more pleasing. There was no danger of Dennis’ voice dominating the chorus here. In fact, her voice had the freedom to soar in her arias, singing them with commanding strength as well as heart-stopping beauty, particularly in a spellbinding account of “Aus liebe”. Taylor’s alto sounded every bit as fine here, too: her “Erbarme dich” was like a pinprick of stillness in the unfolding turmoil, sounding sensational as a duet with Matthew Truscott’s solo violin which used tiny touches of vibrato to accentuate the emotional intensity.

Aside from Dennis and Taylor, all the other singers for Matthew didn’t feature in John. Joshua Ellicott sang the Evangelist with more grit and a little more strength than Mulroy, andt he was every bit as convincing as a storyteller. Matthew Brook’s Jesus is an interpretation for the ages (as affirmed recently by David Nice in reviewing a superlative Dublin Matthew Passion). It’s hard to imagine the part more sympathetically or beautifully sung: he sang with agony in the garden and even a touch of heroism before Caiphas, and overall it’s an interpretation brimming with empathy and humanity. He brought all those qualities to deeply moving performances of the last two bass arias, too. Sofi Jeannin and Anna DennisThe other four singers in the second chorus were very stylish and, importantly, clearly contrasted with the principal four. Soprano Jessical Cale and alto Sarah Campion had lighter voices but highly dramatic expression. Bass Christopher Webb sang his two arias with more bluff directness than Brook, and tenor Hiroshi Amako used his sweet, slightly reedy tenor voice to terrifically compelling effect. All of the instrumental obliggati were played with understated flair, with a special cheer for Jonathan Manson (again) in his grainy, knotty viola da gamba solo in “Komm, süßes Kreuz”.

Director Sofi Jeannin (pictured above with Anna Dennis), perhaps best known in Britain for her work as Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, paced the whole work with a balance of reverence and dramatic thrust, with just the right sense of when to press forwards, when to relax, when to emphasise and when to hold back. This was not a performance were anything was rushed or wasted: instead it unfolded like the devotional drama that it is, a performance outstanding even by the Dunedin Consort’s standards. As the final chorus ebbed away, a weighty silence hung in the air for a good twenty seconds before anyone dared to clap It was a spell that nobody wanted to break, which might be the greatest compliment you can pay to any live performance.

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