A bishop and Baroque

02 November 2006


A LITHE St Matthew Passion, played on period instruments whose raw timbres, viola da gamba not least, pluck at the heartstrings, is something I associate with the  Gabrieli Consort, Peter Holman, Hermann Max, or the glorious countertenor-cum-conductor René  Jacobs. So it was a delightful surprise to find such a performance in deepest Dorset — and one, to boot, conducted by a bishop.

From time to time, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd David Stancliffe, returns to his roots as a former organ scholar of Trinity College, Oxford. The authentic performance of Baroque music remains his chief musical love. He knows it through and through, from Lully and Gilles to Telemann and Bach, and he demonstrated this with a profoundly moving performance of Bach’s “great” Passion at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Blandford Forum.

Returns to the rostrum are de rigueur in Salisbury Close, for years the home of Sir Edward Heath. What struck me here was the way this Blandford performance, at 6.30 on a Sunday, sat comfortably in the guise of an extended parish evensong. Bishop Stancliffe, lending a touch of apt colour in a maroon waistcoat, reminded us at the outset that where the interval came, a sermon was usual.

The musical approach surely goes back to Bach’s Dresden precursor Schütz: an honest, straight narration of the Gospel story, climaxing devastatingly in the words “Truly, this man was the Son of God”: “ Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen.” With the full text printed in parallel, it was possible to savour the Passion narrative in detail, and, through Bach’s reflective arias, an exploration of its import.

The solo singers were patchy, but impassioned: Hugh Hetherington, who fared best in “Geduld, Geduld”; and the appealing soprano Alison Pickard, who sounded part boyish, part instrument-like, in her enchanting exchange with Baroque oboes, “Er hat uns Allen”, and in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (with transverse flute), and the grieving duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”.


Her duet partner, the alto Kate Hamilton, recalled not so much Anne-Sofie von Otter (“Erbarme dich”) as the great Kathleen Ferrier in the fabulous lament “Ach, Golgatha”, and that famed aria “If my tears be unavailing” (“Können Tränen”).

Despite a plaintive, dark, glowing Christus from Greg Sanderson (and the occasional editing query), it was Bruce Saunders’s initially uncertain, yet always engaging, baritone arias that told: “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”, “Gerne will ich mich bequemen”, “Komm, süsses Kreuz”, and, above all, the superb “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (a Fischer-Dieskau calling-card).

The orchestra proved its reliability latterly, after an edgy start: much lovely solo work was in evidence, notably from Theresa Caudle, leading the Bishop’s quality ensemble; only once did we nearly have three speeds at once.

The spirited attack, dramatic interplay, and sensitive touches from the almost scratch choir (twice abetted by young singers from Dunbury First School) constantly uplifted: “Sind Blitze, sind Donner” was superb; and those touching repetitions of “Wohin?” were vivid.

Several characterful solos, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Peter, emerged. But the laurels went to the darting Evangelist, Julian Podger, arguably the only one (leading strings apart) who  fully grasped the long-breathed phrasing, interpretative subtlety, and refined ritenuti that flowed from the Bishop’s controlling right arm. To hear these two making music together was an education in itself.


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