Royal Northern Sinfonia, Sage Gateshead ★★★★☆
Every orchestra wants its concerts to stand out from the crowd, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia certainly did just that last night. They promised not one but three young soloists, perhaps the most famous in the country: the violinist Nicola Benedetti, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, gathered for almost the only concert that could use all of them, the Triple Concerto of Beethoven.
Benedetti happened to be indisposed, but the young Korean violinist Hyeyoon Park proved a more than worthy replacement. The concert in true Beethovenian style begins with an introduction that transitions from furtive anticipation to glorious affirmation and sunshine in the space of seconds, an effect made vividly by the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by new Chief Conductor Dinis Sousa.
And then came the pivotal moment when the cellist announces the glorious melody. How should one describe the mood of that melody? He is martial but somewhat shy, elegant but tender and above all ambitious, with his eyes fixed on the stars. Cellist Kanneh-Mason seemed to capture all of those different feelings at once, and though he really had his eyes fixed on the stars—or at least on Sage Gateshead’s ceiling—it was his subtle playing and his phrasing that made most of the Work. Then came Park with the same melody, more outgoing and bright as befits the violin, and finally Grosvenor on the piano, more assertive but still light and somehow sunny.
And so it went on. Sometimes the three players would engage in a dance with an elegance and energy a la Chopin; sometimes they unite for a concerted drive towards a fiery climax; and only occasionally retreating together for a moment of quiet and introspection. It was a marvel, and if anyone in the audience hadn’t melted away it certainly would have been over the encore, a particularly sentimental arrangement by Danny Boy.
It is a tribute to the wonderfully incisive playing of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Sousa’s energetic conducting that Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia Italiana did not seem in any way a disappointment after the excitement of the concert. In fact the swirling Tarantella that concludes the piece set off at such a madly fast pace that I feared the whole thing might go off the rails, but I needn’t have worried. And let’s not overlook the opening piece, A Walk to Beethoven by the forty-year-old Swedish composer Britta Byström, in which the outline of Beethoven’s 7 piecesth the symphony seemed to approach and retreat across a startling, softly colored musical landscape. In all, it was a feast for the heart and for the mind.
Matthew Passion, Britten Pears Arts ★★★★☆
Bach’s Passions, those grand retellings of Christ’s Trial and Crucifixion, have become such a familiar part of the concert season that it’s easy to forget how strange and radical they are. The same cantor may be at one moment the disciple Peter, who angrily denies that he will deny Christ, at a later moment a grieving spectator interpreting the scene. The timescale shifts in an instant between the noise and anger of the courtroom and the calmness of the Lutheran hymns, where everyone looks on with compassion and awe from a point of view beyond time.
During a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Britten-Pears Arts Easter Weekend last night, that mysterious quality was restored, but in the kindest way possible. There was no “immersive” video, no electronic sound, just minimal interaction between the singers devised by opera director John La Bouchardière. As the grand opening chorus began, we saw the 26-player Solomon’s Knot “period instrument” orchestra, conductorless, divided into two symmetrically arranged groups, with the lone figure of the Evangelist seated in the center telling the story of the scene.
But where were the singers? Seated in the audience, it turned out, symbolizing that they were “one of us.” There are only eight of them, which do the duty for the two four-part choirs, the grieving spectators and the characters of the play. As they sang they came to occupy the center of the stage, in front of the orchestra, dressed in sober black.
As the drama unfolded, these eight were like characters performing to each other with body language and gesticulation, as much as singing to us in the audience. He remembered that a Passion is an act of teaching and persuasion. In each aria the singer, accompanied by their accompanying instruments for added rhetorical effect, attempted to convince his neighbor of a vital truth, not always with success. A particularly telling moment was when the bass pleaded “Give me back my Jesus” to each singer, and one by one they turned away guiltily.
All of this was wonderful. However it must be said that while the instrumental playing was uniformly excellent, the singing was distinctly erratic. Soprano Zoë Bradshaw and bass Alex Ashworth were distinguished by their vibrant strength of tone, but all, especially Thomas Herford as the Evangelist, deserve praise for singing the entire work from memory. It allowed the dramatic human element to shine through, in a way that paradoxically illuminated the divine mystery at the heart of this incredible work.
St John Passion/Britten Symphony, Barbican ★★★★☆
Bloodied but untamed, the Britten Sinfonia – stripped of all Arts Council of England funding in one fell swoop – continue to make great music. Last night he appeared at the Barbican with the choir of Merton College, Oxford and a cast of mostly young soloists for one of the great musical retellings of the Easter story, Bach’s St John Passion.
It has one of the music’s great beginnings, the basses throbbing like the heart of a repentant sinner, the oboes wail achingly above, as the chorus hurls its affirmation “Lord, show us you have conquered death.” On the page the words sound triumphant but the music plays panicked, as if victory might actually be in doubt.
It was all right, but somehow this opening didn’t grab my throat like it should have. The choir, Oxford’s newest choral foundation and the only one to have sopranos instead of male trebles, had a voice as fresh and passionate as ever, but the rushing notes lacked the implacable clarity they needed.
As the drama unfolded, one could discern that all the elements of a fine performance were present, particularly the two central roles. Young tenor Gwilym Bowen was decidedly fervent as the Evangelist who tells the story, and bass Michael Mofidian as Christ had the raspy voice and stoic presence that marked him as the still, unflappable center of the drama. But the elements took a while to even out. In the opening scenes where Christ is betrayed and then arrested in the garden, the pacing seemed a bit rushed.
Finally, under the firm but gentle guidance of violinist Jacqueline Shave – making her final appearance as leader of the Britten Sinfonia – all fell into place and the performance began to shine. The trial scene in this Passion is notoriously urgent, and often runs feverishly, each number treading on the previous one.
Here the pace was slightly varied and some details stood out from the flow, as if they were momentarily surrounded by a halo. These often came in the exchanges between Christ and Pontius Pilate, played by Malachy Frame who was psychologically the thinnest singer on stage. When he asked his captive he, “Where are you from?” you could feel the Roman’s half-repressed feeling that this man standing before him actually had something divine about him. Michael Mofidian’s enunciation of Christ’s death had a similar luminous stillness.
Surrounding these were purely human responses to these majestic events: mezzo-soprano Anita Montserrat’s delicate rendition of the aria ‘It’s Finished’, soprano Rachel Redmond’s ecstatic ‘Dissolve My Heart’, and that remarkable aria in which Malachy Frame and the choir exhorted us to fly alongside the suffering Christ, while the violins thrillingly evoked a sense of cosmic urgency. It really made us feel that this “flight” can’t be too fast and that the fate of the world is at stake. It was one of the moments where this performance really peaked.