St John Passion - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Queen Elizabeth Hall, 24 February 2008
The second best thing about Easter, after Cadbury Mini-Eggs, has to be the inevitable procession of Bach Passions through the concert halls of London. I'm restricting myself to two this season - the next is another St John, at the Barbican on 14 March.
Like London buses, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment didn't have a conductor on board. (Also the tickets were overpriced and the journey seemed to take forever, but I'll leave that for now).
Consciously or not, they drew attention to the absence by leaving a large gap centre stage where the podium would normally be.
The idea was not simply to imitate original performance practice, but also, as Mark Padmore explains here, to interest the audience, and maybe even improve the performance by allowing the tempos to develop more naturally.
With a small ensemble of eighteen musicians and twelve singers, all steeped in this repertoire, there was little chance it would be a total disaster. But at the same time, thirty people cannot be expected to have the symbiotic rapport of a jazz trio or a string quartet. Intelligent decisions can be taken in rehearsals, but there's little scope for flexibility in the performance itself if there's no single guiding hand on the night.
So while the performers' responsiveness to each other created a feeling of intimacy and absorption, there were also no real risks taken (probably wisely - there were several minor fluffs anyway). The cautious uniformity tempos and dynamics failed to shape the work. This task fell to Mark Padmore as the Evangelist. Despite a cast on one foot and a hacking cough, his meticulously-shaded tenor could glow or gleam or glare, sometimes in the course of a single note. The crystal-bright soprano Lydia Teuscher was the other memorable soloist.
The chorus, which included the soloists, generally managed crisp entrances and general ensemble, but there was a distinct lack of balance in many passages, with some individual voices carrying far out over the others. Equally, I felt the bass and cello were over-favoured in the orchestral balance, but that may have been partly because I was sitting closer to them, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall acoustic doesn't compensate for such accidents of placement.
There was no interval in the two hour performance. Instead actor Stephen Dillane (also the double bassist's page turner for the night) gave a couple of readings, in place of the sermon which would have punctuated the original performance. I'm all for playing longer works straight through, but if you're going to split them like that, why not have a proper break? A few of the audience would have appreciated it, judging from the number who slipped out mid-second half, and some of the performers might have wilted less toward the end, too.
The free pre-performance talk by Bach scholar John Butt deserves a mention too. Obviously used to holding the mayfly attentions of undergraduates, Butt got top marks for not only for the title of his talk ('Butt on Bach') but for an entertaining, layman-friendly sweep through the main features of the work and current theories about its original performance style.