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New St Luke Passion

19 July 2013


THE new Clifton International Festival is doubly elevated: first, poised on a lofty plateau on a par with Brunel's famous suspension bridge, more than 100 feet above the Avon Gorge; and, second, showing daring and verve in interspersing large-scale concerts with state-of-the-art chamber recitals.

Over nine days, audiences were led by Tom Williams, organist at Clifton RC Cathedral, and artistic director of the festival, from a substantial new commission - a Passion, based unusually on St Luke, here by the composer Martin Le Poidevin, an oratorio soloist of note and a member of the cathedral's music staff; through the large-scale community event that yielded a massed performance of Karl Jenkins's Requiem; to a memorable performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers.

This fusion of the new and the once new - for Monteverdi cannot help but sound as fresh as if it had been composed yesterday - gave the festival weight and backbone. Folded around this were Peter Phillips's Tallis Scholars (of whom Le Poidevin has been a member), offering the sublime and the well-tried: Allegri's Miserere, and Palestrina's theological landmark Missa Papae Marcelli - a marvel of restraint that tendered hope for post-Reformation music; a meaty Benjamin Britten recital at All Saints', Clifton, for the composer's centenary; Baroque treasures (such as Johann Friedrich Fasch, 1688-1758, a musician openly admired by Bach) from the period-instrument group Ars Eloquentiae; and Charles Avison and Geminiani folded into a concert by the high-flying Bristol Baroque Soloists.

Flying just as high were all members of the Clifton Festival Chorus, not long formed, an immensely promising ensemble centred on the cathedral's clearly first-rate choir, who, with half a dozen soloists from I Fagiolini, shed unusually lucid rays on the intricate detail and filigree of Monteverdi's masterpiece. The choir voices constantly excelled. The work is not so much one treasure as a series, culminating in a Magnificat whose musical potency rivals Bach's.

Admirable though the soloists were, from I Fagiolini it was Robert Hollingworth's organ-playing that stood out, managing to catch, time and again, the expressive plangency of the separate movements. John Gibbons, one of this country's great and consistently unsung orchestral conductors, allowed the work to droop somewhat, by inexpressive (or, once or twice, too slow) pacings, seemingly with a contentedness that lacked the explosive attack that Monteverdi surely demands.

But, as he allowed things to hot up, Gibbons's leadership helped to deliver a really exciting final few stages. The choir's first altos, then second sopranos, then tenors - the list goes on - by their exciting attentiveness and superlative tuning guaranteed that, even where there was some flagging, the underlying musical quality was of a high order.

I earnestly hope that we hear these forces in many more big-scale, familiar or unfamiliar, works in the future. We shall be rewarded.

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