Solomon’s Knot & Les Passions de l’Âme
Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245
Église Saint-François, Lausanne, 2018-03-31
2018-04-09 — Original posting
- The Artists
- A General Note
- The Performance
- Bach: Chorale Prelude “Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott“, BWV 721
- Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245
- Les Passions de l’Âme
- Choir: Solomon’s Knot
- Evangelist(s): Ruairi Bowen, Thomas Herford
- Jesus & Pilatus: Jonathan Sells
- Soprano Arias: Zoë Brookshaw
- Alto Arias: Kate Symonds-Joy
- Tenor Arias: Ruairi Bowen, Thomas Herford
- Bass Arias: Jonathan Sells
- Jacobus Gallus Carniolus: Motet “Ecce quomodo moritur justus“
- Bach: Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich“, BWV 636
- Some Photos from the Applause
Long after I had made arrangements to attend a performance of the St.John Passion in a concert in Basel on 2018-03-29, out of the blue, I received a proposal / offer to review a second performance of the same St.John Passion, just two days after the one in Basel. This was in the Église Saint-François in Lausanne, with Solomon’s Knot and Les Passions de l’Âme performing. The invitation came a mere four days prior to the performance on 2018-03-31. I had never been in that church (see also my “Concert Venues” page for details). However, I had read about concert performances and the excellent organ. So, I was curious to visit that place at some point anyway. The concert was at a suitable time (5 p.m., such that I was able to get back home the same day). I could hardly resist the offer!
Along with the Gothic cathedral, the Église Saint-François in Lausanne remains the only pre-reformation church building in Lausanne. It goes back to a Franciscan monastery founded in 1258. The original monastery and the building (with the exception of the choir) burned down in 1368. The church was then reconstructed. It became a reformed church in the 16th century. The choir still exists in its original form. The interior otherwise has been thoroughly renovated / reconstructed in 2011. Saint-François serves for regular services, while at the same time it is a popular venue for concerts and organ recitals.
The main organ goes back to an instrument with 22 stops + pedal and 2 keyboards by Samson Scherrer from 1777. In 1867, E.F. Walcker (Ludwigsburg, Germany) expanded it to 3 keyboards + pedal and 36 stops. 1880, 13 additional stops were added to the third keyboard. 1936, Th. Kuhn (Männedorf) expanded the instrument to 56 stops. In 1990, the church closed for renovations. In 1995, the organ was re-built in its current form, again by Th. Kuhn (Männedorf). The instrument now features 5 keyboards + pedal, 75 stops, and mechanical traction.
The main organ took part in this concert, too, but in a minor role.
This concert was vastly different from the one in Basel on 2018-03-29, even just in the outline, the setup. The key differences:
Orchestra / Instrumental
- For the orchestra, one could call the performance “truly historically informed”. The musicians used period instruments or replicas throughout (gut strings, baroque bows, period wind instruments). See below for details.
- In addition, the orchestra featured one single instrument per voice. There were 2 violins, viola, baroque cello, viola da gamba, violone, theorbo, chest organ + harpsichord (same player), 2 traversos, 2 oboe / oboe da caccia, baroque bassoon—13 instrumentalists altogether.
- There was no conductor: the orchestra was led from the first desk, by the concertmaster.
Vocal / Singers
- The singers performed all vocal parts entirely by heart!
- 5 singers (SATTB) covered all vocal parts—recitative, Jesus and all other roles, choirs, chorales, turbae: there was no real “choir”.
- There were only few notable restrictions with this setting:
- No.32, “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein”, where the bass sang the solo part: in the choir a bassoon performed the bass part.
- The bass soloist was performing both Jesus, as well as Pilatus, which was somewhat unusual at first.
- As stipulated by the score, there was a sermon between part 1 and part 2. In addition, the concert started and ended with a chorale prelude by Bach, on the main organ. Prior to the chorale prelude at the end, the singers also performed a renaissance / early baroque motet.
- Chorales which exist with Bach’s melody in the reformed church song book were first performed by the “choir”. After this, the entire community (audience, orchestra, soloists, grand organ) sang 1 or 2 strophes in French.
- There was no intermission, but an excellent sermon (in French) by the local pastor instead.
The last point not only served as “hook” for people who were less familiar with the German text of Bach’s Passion. However, at the same time, it involved the audience, made it participate in the performance, and hence raised the participation level from a purely passive listening role.
Orchestra / Instrumentalists
The orchestra in this performance was Les Passions de l’Âme (the passions of the soul), now celebrating its 10th anniversary. The ensemble runs under the subtitle “Orchester für Alte Musik (orchestra for ancient music), Bern”. It consists of 13 musicians. With such a small ensemble, I might as well list them all by name:
- Meret Lüthi, concertmaster / violin 1. As far as I could see, this was a modern violin (long fingerboard), but with gut strings, and played with a baroque bow.
- Sabine Stoffer, violin 2 (baroque violin)
- Lucile Chionchini, viola
- Rebeca Ferri, baroque cello
- Love Persson, violone
- Matthias Müller, viola da gamba
- Ieva Saliete, chest organ & harpsichord (Italian)
- Juan Sebastian Lima, theorbo
- Gabriele Gombi, bassoon
- Anne Parisot & Keiko Kinoshita, traverso
- Shai Kribus & Gustavs Fridrihsons, baroque oboe / oboe da caccia
With the obvious exception of cello, viola da gamba, chest organ / harpsichord, and theorbo, all musicians performed standing. Meret Lüthi led the ensemble with clear body gestures / language, with determination. However, she was not actually conducting, e.g., by waving the bow, etc.
The big organ (on the rear balcony) was played by Elie Jolliet (*1994). Since 2013, Elie Jolliet is a pupil of the main organist at Saint-François, Benjamin Righetti (*1982, see also Wikipedia).
Solomon’s Knot (“Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective” in full) is a collective that the baritone Jonathan Sells founded in London, in 2008. This is a collective of singers and instrumentalists “prepared to take risks in order to communicate more directly with our audience. Our aim is to remove the barriers between performer and spectator, to intensify the performance experience” (quoted from www.solomonsknotcollective.com). Their self-description continues with “One way in which we do this is to apply the principles of chamber music to large-scale works, performing them with small forces, without conductor, and often from memory.“
Initially, Solomon’s Knot ran under the name “Solomon Choir and Orchestra”. It still consists of both singers and instrumentalists. I take from the Web site that they currently have about 10 singers and at least 16 instrumentalists. Since 2015, they are also cooperating with Les Passions de l’Âme, with concerts in Bern, Lausanne, and Regensburg (Germany).
Staff in This Concert
Just a fraction of the vocal section of Solomon’s Knot were present, consisting of the following five singers:
- Zoë Brookshaw, soprano (choir, arias, Ancilla)
- Kate Symonds-Joy, alto (choir, arias)
- Ruairi Bowen, tenor (choir, evangelist, arias)
- Thomas Herford, tenor (choir, evangelist, arias)
- Jonathan Sells, baritone (choir, Jesus, Pilatus, arias)
The founder of the collective, Jonathan Sells, still leads the ensemble, in cooperation with James Halliday. When he is not working with the collective, Jonathan is an opera singer, based in Bern. He is the only artist in this performance whom I have witnessed before, in a concert in Geneva, on 2015-12-27.
One of the key features in performances with Solomon’s Knot is that the singers all perform entirely by heart. This (as explained on their Web site) requires the members to memorize not only their own part, but also that of the other singers, and possibly outlines of what the accompaniment does. One key advantage of this is, that it not only frees one’s mind for interaction with the other musicians, but at the same time, it also gets the singers in much closer contact with the audience (no constant reading in the sheet music / score).
A General Note
As this performance was a mere two days (even a little less) than two days after the previous one, I can’t really avoid putting the two performances in relation. Be it only to point out fundamental differences in the two approaches. However, basically, the two performances are hardly comparable at all. I’m returning to this point in my final remarks at the bottom of this posting.
Formally, the concert was a church service (culte-concert), starting and ending with organ playing. Between these pre- and postludes on the big organ, Bach’s St.John Passion, BWV 245 included a sermon after part I. Finally, prior to the organ postlude, the singers from Solomon’s Knot performed a 16th century motet. The church was more than full—additional chairs were brought in, just prior to the beginning.
Bach: Chorale Prelude “Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott”, BWV 721
As introduction / introit, Elie Jolliet performed the Chorale Prelude “Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott“, BWV 721, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), on the grand organ (see above). This was of course not an organ presentation, but merely a quiet chorale (in the descant), with softly stepping accompaniment, all in soft flue stops, calm, totally unexcited, reflective—the right kind of prelude for a passion oratorio. And of course, the underlying chorale was an appropriate selection: “Have mercy with me, my Lord”: five minutes to detach one’s thoughts and mind from the noise and turmoil of daily life, and for getting ready for the oratorio.
The St.John Passion started after a short introduction and a prayer by the pastor. There was no intermission. After Part I, the pastor of the church, Jean-François Ramelet, delivered a sermon, as in a regular church service. It was an excellent Easter sermon (just about 11 minutes), as much as I could tell. This follows the composer’s intent: for Part II, the score notes “Nach der Predigt” (after the sermon).
Bach: St.John Passion, BWV 245
As in my previous posting, I’m not going to discuss this composition by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), other than by giving these links. And again I’m referring to my earlier posting, originally from 2013-06-24, in which I did an extensive comparison of 7 recordings of this work. And also here, I’m not discussing the concert in chronological order, but rather by artist / “performing component”, though roughly in the order of their first appearance.
Les Passions de l’Âme
Guided by Meret Lüthi’s active leadership through gestures with her body while playing. It was pure joy to see this orchestra in action: the active participation, the constant attention, interaction and passionate cooperation, the care for detail, and of course the rich, but soft sound of the gut strings, the natural articulation with baroque bows.
Expectedly, the tempo was all natural, adjusted to the flow of the language (there are no purely instrumental pieces in the oratorio). If any pace sounded unusual, then it was probably the very beginning, which was much slower in traditional, romantic performances with big orchestras and choirs. Thereafter, the tempo was inconspicuous throughout. If it ever felt different from “the norm”, then it occasionally was a tad slower, more careful—almost certainly in order to allow for proper, careful articulation. On the other hand, there were certainly also occasions when Meret Lüthi actively made sure the pace didn’t fall behind.
As all instruments were either period or excellent replicas, balance within the ensemble was a non-issue. Those used to conventional orchestra sound may initially have found that the bass / continuo sound dominated over the high strings—but it was a matter of a few moments until the ear had adjusted to this “historic sound balance”. Even though there was one single instrument per voice, the violins were definitely present and perfectly audible. Of course, in the first chorus, they are merely secondary accompaniment, with their rolling semiquaver figures. However, throughout the evening, there wasn’t a single instance where I felt that an instrument was inappropriately standing out from the ensemble sound.
For all I can tell, the basso continuo was excellent—natural and inconspicuous: Jesus and the evangelist were typically supported by the chest organ, baroque cello, violone, and theorbo, providing a warm, full foundation, which was further supported and “enlarged” by the church acoustics. If I remember correctly, the harpsichord was mainly or exclusively used to support choral segments. I can’t remember a single instance where I felt that the continuo was “not enough” (too thin) or “too much” (e.g., in volume, or in ornamentation): obviously, experts in baroque accompaniment in action!
“Windows” / “Outlooks”
For some of the arias, Bach purposefully selected special instrumentation, making these pieces stand out, like “windows into a world beyond”. Some details:
- In No.19, the bass arioso “Betrachte meine Seel” and the subsequent tenor aria “Erwäge” (No.20), the two violins performed with mute (con sordino). Especially in the arioso, this creates a particularly intimate, warm and touching atmosphere. The mutes are a legitimate alternative (specified by Bach) in lieu of two viole d’amore.
- With No.30, the also aria “Es ist vollbracht!”, features a prominent solo on the viola da gamba, combined here with theorbo, organ and violone as basso continuo. The sound of the viol projected very well, its characteristic tone highlighted the special situation, immediately prior to Jesus’ passing.
- Finally, in No.35, the soprano aria “Zerfließe, mein Herze”, the accompaniment combines a traverso and an oboe da caccia. This was one of the rare opportunities to see this rare instrument with its metal (brass?) bell “in action”. The mix of the two wind instruments provided the proper, peculiar atmosphere in this aria—and at the same time, it was not intrusive at all, allowing for the Zoë Brookshaw’s beautiful soprano (see below) to shine!
All wind instruments were of course proper baroque models—and all excellently played.
Choir: Solomon’s Knot
With its small setting of five professional singers (SATTB, see above) one cannot discuss homogeneity within individual voices: the fact that there were two tenors singing was entirely inconspicuous. Naturally, one heard each voice individually, and as they are professional singers, at any time, they had excellent control in dynamics, highlighting individual climaxes in polyphonic textures. Articulation, phrasing, coloraturas / ornaments, dynamics left nothing to wish for, and the five voices were harmoniously fitting together. In short: pure delight!
Nobody ever tried “beating the others” in terms of presence or volume. If a voice was standing out, it was because that singer put the focus on a key part of a phrase or melody. Because there were just five artists, highlighting tiny motifs could occur in rapid succession and instantaneously—which was key to the vivacity of the performance. And of course, transparency in such a setting is simply a given, never an issue!
Singing by Heart
Unless one has witnessed the effect (particularly from close-up) it is hard to believe what a huge difference it makes if singers in an oratorio perform by heart! It was key to keeping constant mutual contact, as well as in singing into the audience, maybe even (unconsciously, I presume) making eye contact with individuals in the audience. In other words it greatly intensified the contact, the interplay between singers, as well as between singers and audience.
Of equal importance for the outcome was of course, that every single voice (unless both tenors sang in unison) was a single, professional singer, which (together with the singing by heart) allowed for much more intensity and expression, richness and life—simply incomparable to big choirs, let alone lay choirs.
Diction and pronunciation were truly excellent, throughout, both in the choir, as well as with the solo performances. There were very few instances where one could guess that the singers are not native German-speaking. Only in rare moments it was obvious—to me, as Swiss-German, most likely much less so for the (French-speaking) audience.
For those turbae representing few individuals (soldiers, high priests), the small vocal ensemble was of course the ideal choice. On the other hand, I saw no problem at all with four or five professional singers representing / imitating a crowd of Jews: the intensity of the singing (by heart) and the professional voices more than made up for the lack in mass / number.
One little “logical hiccup” with having one bass singer only was that in some of the turbae, Sells was singing (as one of the Jews) “to himself” (as Jesus). A minor issue, really.
Needless to say that the performance in the virtuosic turbae (especially No.27b, “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen”), was stunning, vivid, perfect in the coloraturas, enthralling, gripping, yet full of life, theatrical. This was not a virtuosic showpiece, not a glossy, polished piece of machined perfection, and not pushing for ultimate speed. Human singers in dramatic action!
I particularly liked the way in which the professional singers highlighted the grinding dissonances in turbae such as No.21d, “Kreuzige!”, or the turbae within No.23. In the latter, the sonority was excellent. I enjoyed the careful shaping of the (often dissonant) legato notes in a context of cynical, mocking staccato singing.
The idea of starting No.12b, “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?”, slowly, followed by a strong accelerando (Bach writes a simple Allegro) is interesting, but may be seen as a little exotic.
The extensive sequence of recitatives and turbae in Part II was far more dramatic, gripping, developed a real “dramatic pull” in this setting. There was none of the constant switching between choir and soloist(s) in conventional performances. The latter is potentially disruptive and slows down the action.
Some of the chorales in Bach’s passion represent community singing. In that respect, one might see the performance by Solomon’s Knot as inappropriate. However, that “mis-representation” the fact that these singers raised the expression, the presentation of the content / text, the intensity of these chorales to an entirely different level more than compensated this apparent shortcoming. No big choir can possibly achieve that (and again, the singing by heart was instrumental in this). And, as expected, the language flow, the expression was intense and all natural with these singers: phrasing, breaking into verses, the duration of fermatas and rests, etc. all were non-issues.
I particularly liked the intimacy, the warmth in chorales such as No.26, “In meines Herzens Grunde”.
On the other hand, four of the chorales (No.5, “Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich”, No.14, “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”, No.17, “Ach, großer König”, and No.26, “In meines Herzens Grunde”) were followed by additional verses in French, sung and performed by all instrumentalists, singers, plus the big organ, plus all of the audience (standing). This way, the aspect of community singing and integration was realized—even more efficiently, and to bigger effect than if a big choir sings these chorales. Plus, it must have helped in the understanding of the language and the action (especially in the rear of the nave), considering that the bulk of the audience was French-speaking.
Evangelist(s): Ruairi Bowen, Thomas Herford
Note that not only all of the choirs and the arias were sung by heart, but also all the text for the evangelist. For that reason, it is understandable that the two tenors shared the task of singing the evangelist. Both were actually really excellent at this task. They cleverly shared the task by splitting it such that each of the two sung the parts that suited his voice, his temperament & character the most. True, ideally, this should be one singer and one voice—but in reality, the splitting played a very minor role in the overall outcome.
I should state that the part of the evangelist isn’t just intense and enormously long. It is also very demanding on the voice, such as the vocal range. I noted that both tenors occasionally touched on the limits of their vocal range. In terms of volume, the two were not the biggest voices on the set, but entirely sufficient for their roles. Both tenors projected well, showed a very nice timbre and plenty of “ping” in their voice.
More than in any other role, the language plays a key role for the evangelist. As mentioned above, diction, pronunciation, and understandability were excellent. True, neither of the two can offer the perfect language, or the in-depth understanding of the text, the detail in conveying the content of the text, the natural flow of the biblical German language of a singer such as Christoph Prégardien. There are subtleties in the pronunciation of consonant endings that only a professional, trained, native high-German speaking singer or actor can produce. But also here, the directness of the singing by heart essentially compensated for slight imperfections, such as the occasional lack in glottalization.
Compared to evangelists such as Christoph Prégardien who at the core are conveying the text message (close to Sprechgesang, in a way, often faster, possibly more dramatic), these two evangelists were more determined to present a musical, careful interpretation of Bach’s recitatives (one example is No.27a, “Die Kriegsknechte aber”.
Jesus & Pilatus: Jonathan Sells
If there was any minor “sticky” issue, then it probably was Jonathan Sells singing two opposing roles: Jesus, as well as Pilatus (both are for bass / baritone). As an opera singer, Jonathan Sells certainly has the ability, the flexibility and agility to switch between these roles. From a listening experience, this wasn’t really a serious disadvantage. But I don’t think anyone would disagree with the claim that two basses would have been more effective / the better representation. It would have helped the listener (especially non-German speaking people) in following / “living” the action.
I did definitely like Jonathan Sell’s open, clear timbre, the volume and projection of his voice, especially for the part of Jesus. He did try differentiating between Jesus and Pilatus. However, overall, the “two voices” were slightly too similar. A second bass would have offered the benefit of a voice with different characteristics. To me (just my personal taste / opinion), Jesus is more of a bass role, while Pilatus can well be a typical baritone voice. There were a few instances where a little more volume in the bottom range (i.e., a voice with more bass than baritone characteristics) would have been helpful.
Each of the arias in the passion is a gem in itself—and a key component. It provides a “third-party interpretation / comment” on what is happening in the biblical story:
Soprano Arias: Zoë Brookshaw
Zoë Brookshaw sang two arias: No.9, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”, and No.35, “Zerfließe, mein Herze”. Her voice was—more than just stunning: both my wife and I were instantly captured and touched by the effortless beauty and intensity of her singing, her projection and timbre, her natural expression and vibrato. We can’t stop thinking about this voice: close to a miracle!
In No.9, the two traversos in unison sounded like a single instrument. One had to watch to realize that there were two instruments playing.
The special instrumentation in No.35 (see above) gave her voice the appropriate, central role. It highlighted the beauty of her timbre, the intensity and clarity of her singing. And her voice control (e.g., in the messa di voce) is simply excellent!
Alto Arias: Kate Symonds-Joy
The alto has two arias, No.7, “Von den Stricken” , and No.30, “Es ist vollbracht!” (see also above). Kate Symonds-Joy did deliver a very good performance (especially considering the state of her pregnancy!). In No.30, the performance of the coloraturas in the fast middle part, “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht”, was very good, expressive and dramatic. However, one of the few quibbles I have with the performance in this concert is that for my taste, the vibrato in both these arias, especially in slower, long notes, tended to be on the heavy side, the singing (and her facial mimics) a little too dramatic, both in the context of a passion oratorio, as well as in relation to the other singers.
Yes, the action in the passion can be seen as dramatic. Some people even think Bach’s passion are a substitute for opera (which Bach never had the opportunity to compose). However, the overall context is a sad one, and I don’t think anger and drama are seen as appropriate around Easter in a Pietist community / context in which Bach lived. It may well be that I’m overstating this aspect a bit due to the close spatial proximity to the singer—but still…
Tenor Arias: Ruairi Bowen, Thomas Herford
The tenor role(s) include(s) arias, too: No.13, “Ach, mein Sinn”, and No.20, “Erwäge”, which were also shared between the two tenors. With all the load from the evangelist’s part, plus the arias on top, it was no more than natural to observe rare signs of vocal strain / exhaustion with both the two tenors—however, this was absolutely negligible in the overall outcome. In general, their performance (again, all by heart!) was still astounding, and they proved to have plenty of breath for long phrases (e.g., in No.20: very lyrical and musical, and with excellent diction).
Bass Arias: Jonathan Sells
There are two bass arias with choir: No.24, “Eilt, eilt”, and No.32, the aria “Mein teurer Heiland”. For the former, the choir is just S-A-T (no bass voice), so this was not a problem at all. Actually, in this No.24, the “Wohin, wohin?” interjections are a nightmare for lay choirs, as they appear “at random”, and the intonation is “out of the blue”, yet absolutely crucial. Hearing this here was an absolute delight: clear, pure, and expectedly not the slightest insecurity. The tempo in this aria was fairly challenging, not just for the interjections, but also for the Jonathan Sells’ long coloratura lines, where his sonority occasionally seemed slightly weak.
No.32, “Mein teurer Heiland”, is trickier, as the score asks for bass solo with SATB choir accompaniment. This is another instance where a second bass voice would have been helpful. However, there was an elegant solution for this. Just for this aria, the choir (SAT) stood in the rear of the choir, behind the orchestra, and the bassoon discreetly played the bass voice for the choir. The result was absolutely adequate. I certainly did no miss anything, and it highlighted the central, contemplative role of Jonathan Sells’ solo part, with its beautiful, touching cantilena.
There is also the equally touching No.19, the arioso “Betrachte meine Seel” (see above), which Sells performed with very careful phrasing and agogics (I particularly liked his ritenuti).
The passion oratorio ends with a big choral piece (No.39, “Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”) and a chorale (No.40, “Ach herz, lass dein lieb Engelein”). I particularly liked and enjoyed the intimate, humble and comforting character of No.39: this was ever so far from the pompous endpoint that some may remember from traditional, romantic interpretations!
Finally, the closing chorale with its simple continuo accompaniment once more highlighted the vocal art of the small choral ensemble. Only here (not in No.39!), for a last time, Solomon’s Knot allowed their voices to glow, to bloom and flourish up in a gently growing, final gesture, the plea of the closing prayer-chorale. It was not a grandiose, “big” ending, but an immensely touching, intense ending. Thank you so much for all that music!
Jacobus Gallus Carniolus: Motet “Ecce quomodo moritur justus”
In the long pause / silence after Jesus’ passing (after No.31, the recitative “Und neigete das Haupt”), Jonathan Sells blew out the candle that had been standing in the center of the semi-circle formed by the singers. After the last chorale and the end of the oratorio, the five singers of Solomon’s Knot closed in. They formed a narrow circle around the now extinct candle. In this reflective moment, they inserted the Motet “Ecce quomodo moritur justus“ by the Slovenian late-renaissance composer Jacobus Gallus Carniolus (1550 – 1591). Gallus is also known as Jacob (or Jacobus) Handl (or Händl).
This motet (“Behold how the just man dies”) is a beautiful, calm, introverted piece. It was performed with the utmost level of vocal / singing art and culture, in perfect dynamic control and internal balance. At the same time, this was a very sensual, touching, contemplative experience for everybody! One could tell this from the long, intense silence that followed alone.
Bach: Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich”, BWV 636
At the end of the culte-concert, a short, closing benediction and a common prayer by Jean-François Ramelet followed. Then, Elie Jolliet duplicated the prayer with the Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich”, BWV 636, again by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), on the grand organ (see above). This short piece from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (organ booklet) was a fitting closure to this impressive concert & church service: the common, Christian prayer.
Only now, after this contemplative, almost meditative ending, the very well-deserved applause set in.
Some Photos from the Applause
All photos (unless noted otherwise) © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved
Quite obviously, I can’t hide my fascination for the approach taken in this performance of Bach’s St.John Passion. It was a concert that overall felt infinitely more gripping, more touching, more “talking directly to my heart” than the one from 2018-03-29. In comparison my judgement is very much in favor of this performance. I can see good reasons for performing this passion oratorio with a small team such as this one (maybe ideally with 1 – 2 additional singers).
However, I don’t imply that this is the only valid performance approach. I think that a small chamber choir, and also a slightly bigger orchestra are certainly able to produce equally valid, similarly impressive results. Especially if the size of the choir and the number of active musicians is varied through the performance, e.g., smaller orchestra for arias / ariosi, fewer singers in the choir for some of the turbae. Independent of the performance setup, my high rating speaks of the quality of the musicians, not primarily for the superiority of the selected approach.
However, this performance was definitely more historically informed (or correct, if you want) than the previous one. In this respect, I do prefer the approach chosen in this concert.
And: sure, the time of big / huge lay choirs singing Bach’s passion oratorios (except perhaps for the opening and closing choruses) is over. Even more so this holds true for performances involving big symphony orchestras: I actually didn’t need this performance as a proof. But the concert definitely confirmed that for me.
An Unfair Comparison?
I should also state that a comparison is a priori unfair, because on 2018-03-29 my wife and I were sitting on the rear balcony, at a far greater distance and with limited view, hence less susceptible to the effects of close interaction. Here, I was sitting in privileged seats in the center of the venue, in row 3, at a few meters from artists singing by heart—and directly into one’s heart. This would highlight any weaknesses in the performance. Here, however, with such excellent artists pretty much throughout, it predominantly worked in favor of the already strong aspects of the performance.
On the other hand, a direct comparison is a little unfair even for excellent soloists in the Basel performance, such as Christoph Prégardien and Regula Mühlemann: their performance can’t be isolated from the general conditions (and the drawbacks) of the (only “partially historical”) approach / conditions chosen in Basel two days ago. To say it more directly: compared to a “choir of soloists”, a lay choir defines a different general scope, a setting that can impossibly match the conditions in this concert.
At the same time, even the excellent performance in Lausanne had its limitations. All the more, the (almost) highest rating for this concert speaks for the quality of the instrumental and vocal teams in this concert! And, after all, what ultimately counts in such a performance, is the overall result, the experience for the listener—not perfection as in a studio CD production.
Finally: no, after this concert I did not downgrade the rating of the one in Basel on 2018-03-29. However, this concert confirmed my findings about the previous one. That said: my ratings and reviews reflect my personal, subjective concert experience(s), for whatever that’s worth.