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S & H Concert Review

Bach, ‘St. John Passion,’ Bach – Collegium Stuttgart, Gachinger Kantorei, Helmuth Rilling, Barbican Hall, Saturday March 23rd. (ME)

The eminent Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling may safely lay claim to be one of the conductors most intimate with Bach’s music, since he is not only the editor of the complete Bachakademie, comprising all of the composer’s works over 172 CDs, but also the only conductor to have recorded all of Bach’s sacred cantatas. He brought with him the choir whose original members were first assembled by him in 1954 and which since then has risen to increasing eminence, as well as the orchestra which he also founded in 1965, so it was hardly surprising that this performance had an exceptional degree of individuality.

Rilling’s soloists were interestingly divided by gender and experience; the two women were both veterans in this music, the contralto in fact featuring on Rilling’s recording of the St. Matthew Passion, but the four men were all fairly young and not well known in this country. This may perhaps have accounted for the less than ideal turnout for the concert; if Rilling had fielded, say, Quasthoff as the Bass soloist (as on the aforementioned recording) and other better-known singers in the other male parts, the hall would probably not have been only two-thirds full. However, the loss was all that of those who failed to show up, since whatever their youth or experience, all the soloists gave performances which were never less than authentic, accurate and committed, and frequently rose to heights of pathos and drama.

The Evangelist was Marcus Ullmann, whose London debut at the Wigmore Hall last year was so eagerly anticipated and well received, and he sang with sweet musicianship despite the beginnings of a cold. This is not a highly charged, dramatic Evangelist in the manner of Schreier or Ainsley, but a more lyrical singer after Partridge or Padmore, and I felt that there were times when Rilling’s extremely interventionist direction – even to indicating most of the notes with his baton – was slightly hampering Ullmann’s freedom of expression. Nevertheless, he did what all good Evangelists must, that is, he told the story, without hand-wringing but plenty of pathos, and he rose to all the great moments such as ‘Als nun Jesus wusste alles...’ and ‘Da nahm Pilatus Jesum und geisselte ihn.’

The part of Christus was sung by Sebastian Noack, a young protégé of Quasthoff, and it showed; his master’s influence was apparent in every line, and that’s no bad thing, since his voice is very beautiful indeed and he shaped his phrases with touching grace. This was a notable assumption from a singer from whom I hope to hear a great deal more. The bass arias were taken by the distractingly handsome Morten Ernst Lassen who sang with unfailing accuracy but little dramatic involvement, especially in ‘Mein Teurer Heiland’ where he lacked a sense of the real import of the words. James Taylor acquitted himself honourably in the demanding tenor solos, the contralto Ingeborg Danz sang elegantly although rather indistinctly in her arias, and the soprano Sibylla Rubens brought all her charm and energy to ‘Ich folge dir’ which she sang with bright tone and fluent phrasing.

Rilling’s management of the orchestra led to some very fine playing, but it was in the chorales that he really impressed; this choir seem to be able to follow his every thought, and the result is eerily perfect. Their singing is incisive, passionate where required and always wonderfully reverent and moving; examples abound, but one which could not fail to stay in the mind was the ending of ‘In meines Herzens Grunde,’ where the final lines ‘Wie du, Herr Christ, so milde / Dich hast geblut’ zu Tod!’ were taken with the most affecting slowness, yet without at all diminishing the enunciation of the words or the moving shape of the phrases. A performance of real commitment and emotional depth.



Melanie Eskenazi

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