Review: La Nuova Musica sing the St John Passion at St George's by Helen Reid (9/10)
IT used to be the rule to field a large choir for performances of Bach's Passions. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and for an authentic performance, as in Bach's day, just a handful of singers are used.
La Nuova Musica, an ensemble dedicated to the recreation of Renaissance and Baroque music, fielded just eight singers for a work that has several big double choruses, meaning one voice per eight parts. And the St John Passion is full of fiery crowd scenes that need power and volume. Could eight voices make each part loud and clear?
In this case they certainly could, and the portrayal of the baying crowd calling for crucifixion was spine-tingling. The St John Passion is much more dramatic and economical than the St Matthew Passion, and it requires soloists and chorus to act several roles: the raging crowd, the sorrowing bystanders who sing the great chorales that are the backbone of the work, the bewildered disciples, and the story is told in recitative by the Evangelist who must act with his voice the familiar story.
Conductor David Bates and his small period orchestra, set a furious tempo right from the start, and kept an urgent pulse going, so that the fast exchanges between Pilate, Jesus and the crowd came over like a piece of music-theatre.
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The crispness and urgency of the continuo playing, the fine obbligato playing from the oboe, flute and viola da gamba, and the powerful well-articulated solo arias all gave the performance a strength and seriousness that stunned the audience into silence at the end of this journey through the Gospel of St John.
Of the soloists, tenor Simon Wall, as an urgent and dramatic narrator Evangelist, and silvery soprano August Hebbert stood out; occasionally the balance suffered with an over-loud bass line, but the tuning in the chorales and in the heart breaking final chorus was perfect.
This concert marked the start of St George's Baroque Festival, which runs in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, until March 29 with concerts, talks, and visits from leading Baroque ensembles. If this becomes a regular event, Nuova Musica should be booked again, right now.