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“...Stephen Layton’s choir Polyphony brought a version of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to the seasonal festival at St John’s Smith Square. You can of course slice and serve Bach’s majestic 1730s combination of musical leftovers (both sacred and secular) and fresh dishes in a variety of ways. But Layton’s choice spun a special mood of its own. With the dozen-strong choir supported by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and four luxury-cast soloists, this gig amid the Baroque splendour of St John’s always promised a celebration in high style. Layton, however, rung unexpected changes by giving us Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Oratorio intercut with another festive favourite: Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, performed after the first part by the OAE strings. That would have disappointed completists who like to hear all six of Bach’s cantatas for separate days of his Leipzig Christmas in a single run. To a degree, the Corelli did break the dramatic flow, but nonetheless it cast its own pervasive spell of gentle, mellow warmth. I’ve heard grander Christmas Oratorios, but few more tenderly involving. Four impressive soloists rose to the challenge of balancing joyous triumph and vulnerable intimacy: soprano Anna Dennis, countertenor Hugh Cutting, tenor James Gilchrist and bass Neal Davies. Yet the wonderfully expressive playing of the OAE, led by Margaret Faultless, made an outsize contribution to the evening from first to last. Right at the start, when the trumpet trio, Adrian Bending’s drums and the scurrying strings leapt into “Jauchzet, frohlocket”, the panache and assurance of every instrumental voice rang out. The choir’s blend and balance sounded immaculate in the chorales, and Layton’s decisive leadership gave the recitatives pace and point. Cutting’s “Bereite dich, Zion” announced the richness of tone and clarity of diction that lends such distinctiveness to his voice; Davies’s “Grosser Herr” had a compelling authority, in league with David Blackadder’s trumpet, while the always-outstanding Katharina Spreckelsen and the three other OAE oboes made the first of many lyrical excursions to relish. Layton drew the cantata to a close with an almost lazy choral grandeur that prepared the way for the Corelli. Yes, the concerto made for a sweet transition as the OAE’s full and rich string tones opened up the Italian musical landscape of the previous decades, on which Bach would soon so brilliantly build. And, after all, the Christmas cantatas were designed for separate feast-days and never planned as a unified work. All the same, the interlude could not help but interrupt the drama of the Nativity story as we waited until after the interval for the divine messengers, the shepherds and their magical music to arrive. Traditionalists might have wondered whether some Christmas transport snarl-up had delayed the angels in a celestial traffic jam. That said, Corelli’s closing pastorale, liltingly delivered by the OAE, painted the scene beautifully for the Annunciation and Adoration to come. In Part 2, Bach’s opening sinfonia – adorned by the flutes and the two oboe pairs, d’amore and da caccia – did feel like a continuation of Corelli, before Gilchrist put his definitive stamp on the Oratorio’s Evangelist role. His later aria, “Frohe Hirten, eilt”, featured not just muscular singing but a gorgeous duet with Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute. As for Cutting’s “Schlafe, mein Liebster”, its purity of tone and depth of feeling gripped and touched. Cutting brings an almost operatic range of emotion to this most perfect lullaby, with an edge of anxiety as well as overwhelming tenderness, while the woodwind voices gave him heavenly support. The contrapuntal confidence and precision of the chorales reminded us of the attention to detail that makes Polyphony such a pinpoint instrument, even at the heftiest climaxes. In Part 3, the trumpets – Blackadder, Phillip Bainbridge, Matthew Wells – came back in all their blaze and swagger. Despite their charisma, we still had vocal treats in store: from Dennis and Davies in the high-low dialectic of “Herr, dein Mittleid” against frolicking oboes d’amore, and (again) from Cutting in an irresistible “Schliesse, mein Herze”. Here – as at other points – the width of the SJSS stage added its own measure of visual and aural drama, as the glorious tone and subtle phrasing of Margaret Faultless’s violin solo touched a loftier instrumental peak that any we had heard before. Layton stage-managed the unfolding drama with a deft vigilance, down to the thrilling ambush of the final choral crescendo. The only trouble was that the sheer quality of singing and playing alike left me (at least) hungry for the three absent parts. Next Christmas, let’s have an uncut Bach Nativity with all the trimmings.”​ Boyd Tonkin,, 23rd December 2023

★★★★★ “Polyphony, who are exemplary in Bach, did as much with the text as the vocal lines, ensuring every word registered in both chorales and complex counterpoint, fiercely depicting the crowd’s demands for Jesus’s death, and deeply affecting as sadness turns to hope at the close …Outstanding, all of it, and often quite extraordinarily moving.”​ Tim Ashley, The Guardian, April 2023

“The performances … were all superb, every note of music seemed perfectly placed. Layton and his choir really managed to capture the different atmospheres of the pieces” Robert Hugill, November 2022, Joy and Devotion Festival

“I come to hear this every year. For me this is when Christmas begins.” So said the man sitting next to me, as we waited for the performance of Handel’s Messiah that by tradition ends the Christmas Festival at St. John’s Smith Square – the beautiful, glowingly white Baroque deconsecrated church that is so utterly right for this work. So many cherish Handel’s great oratorio at Christmas time, and there must have been countless performances in the past few weeks, all round the globe. In one sense this is surprising, because Messiah is not a straightforward shout of joy and praise at the good news of Christ’s birth, as other favourite Christmas pieces are. The second part tells the story of Christ’s Crucifixion, and has moments of anger as well as that supreme aria of sorrow at Christ’s suffering, “He was despised”. Not until the Hallelujah Chorus is sadness banished once and for all. Stephen Layton, conductor of the 26 singers of the choir Polyphony and the 24 players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made sure we felt that constant play of hope and fear, dark and light, all aiming ultimately at triumph, that makes Messiah the masterpiece that it truly is. Until that final triumph the keynotes were drama and uncertainty. Layton signalled his nervy, changeable approach right from the start, with an unexpected soft moment in the stern opening overture, and an equally unexpected hush on the repeat, almost immediately contradicted by an impatient crescendo. The most striking example of the way every feeling and attitude was pushed hard against its opposite was in the great chorus of Part 2, “Surely He hath borne our griefs”. “He was bruised for our iniquities” was almost painfully harsh, and to go from this to the vivid major-key pictorialism of “All we like sheep have gone astray”, the sopranos and basses wandering off high and low and stopping dead, as if those errant sheep had fallen off a cliff, was a shock. Handel’s pictorialism has never seemed so vivid. In all this the young choir was heroically alert and alive and sang with full-blooded magnificence, the orchestral players matching them at every moment. The four soloists at the front, though unimpeachably stylish and expressive, didn’t seem to be on the same level of open-hearted, open-throated generosity. Iestyn Davies didn’t quite wring the heart in “He was despised”, soprano Anna Dennis seemed somewhat unsmiling even when the music smiled, tenor Gwilym Bowen though impassioned in delivery seemed somewhat vocally constricted. Only bass Matthew Brook matched the young heroes behind him. The sense of shining-eyed revelation in his rendition of “We shall all be changed, in a moment”, which comes almost at the end, was one of the evening’s great moments. By now we had had the Hallelujah Chorus, for which Layton imperiously brought us all to our feet, and though it was unbuttoned and joyful there was no let up in dramatic urgency. Layton had a final surprise for us – an unusually slow tempo for the final Amen, which as a consequence had the space to rise to a stately magnificence, with the full organ thrown in at the very end for good measure. It was sublime, and as the man said, it felt as if the Christmas season was truly beginning.”​ Ivan Hewitt, The Telegraph, December 2022

“Directed by Stephen Layton, the [Britten] Sinfonia and the dozen singers of Polyphony warmed up the chilly Barbican stage with a reading of the Oratorio (Parts one, two, three and six) that brought a sense of ritual togetherness to the Brutalist auditorium. The choir, stage left, supplied all the solo roles, with singers stepping out and back for their numbers. The (excellent) woodwinds sat in front of them while, far across the stage, the trio of valveless trumpets stood up and sparkled. What resulted was a collective, congregational mood of equal-opportunity festivity, with no sense of the solo parts as front-stage star turns and – conversely – a drama and excitement to the chorales that avoided any hint of the dutiful dirge. Layton found a bracing drive and swing for each section and kept a dancing lightness to the overall tone that made the evening fly by. I know that this truncation has become the standard edit, but in these hands I would happily have heard all six parts back-to-back.”​ Boyd Tonkin, The Arts Desk, 15 December 2022

★★★★★ “And so to JS Bach himself. Print deadlines are unforgiving things and conspire every year to keep Easter music reviews out of Easter Sunday papers, so indulge me for a moment while I go back and reflect on Good Friday’s St John Passion, performed by Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Stephen Layton. Even with church attendance in decline, it seems the desire to hear the Christian story and its message of redemption is as strong as ever in these febrile times, with performances of the Bach Passions drawing large audiences right across the country in search of a sense of the divine. Of course a deep spirituality is always to be found in Bach, but particularly when it is performed so sincerely by top-flight musicians such as tenor Nick Pritchard (no relation, sadly), Evangelist in the Polyphony performance. He sang from memory with such exquisite care, communicating his story directly to every one of us, often soft and gentle, pained at what he had to tell, and then visibly angry at the bone-headed chorus baying for Jesus’s crucifixion. This was an outstanding interpretation, an Evangelist for today. Bass Ashley Riches was equally vivid in his lip-curling portrayal of cynical Pilate, with intense, moving solos from soprano Rowan Pierce, tenor Ruairi Bowen and mezzo Helen Charlston, who handled the grief and triumph in Es ist vollbracht! with startling clarity. Obbligato playing from within the orchestra was elegant throughout. And behind them all, rock-solid, alert to every nuance in the drama, stood Polyphony, diction crisp, phrasing meticulous. Simply superb.”​ Stephen Pritchard, The Guardian, 15 April 2023

“The turbulence and agitation of betrayal could be felt from the word go in this galvanising performance of the St John Passion, which administered a jolting urgency to Bach’s radical portrayal of the Easter story. The work will be 300 years old next year, yet this Polyphony Good Friday performance – a fixture at St John’s Smith Square for slightly fewer years – delivered a version as fresh and discomfiting as if the crucifixion had taken place yesterday. That was in no small part due to Nick Pritchard, who as the Evangelist narrated the story with a vibrancy that suggested he was discovering the facts as he sang them. Pritchard has performed the role internationally in both the Matthew and John Passions and his experience shows; watching his face and listening to the nuance in his voice was like watching a CNN report with infinitely better music. Stephen Layton conducted both Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for this stirring afternoon, in which the opening movement sounded like a brewing storm. At first it sounded remote and a little ragged, but then the first “Herr” came in with the force of a bolt of lightning, and the electricity started to manifest itself. The St John Passion is famously a mash-up of texts, combining the Lutheran translation of chapters 18 and 19 from St John’s Gospel with a few fragments from St Matthew’s Gospel, a smattering of Psalm 8 and a drizzle of Passion poetry. It’s interesting, then, to interrogate precisely what Bach wanted to highlight in his first lengthy rendition of the Easter story. Perhaps it’s not surprising – given how fractious his own professional life was – that the focus is so strongly on the treachery and unreliability of those surrounding Christ. Layton missed no opportunity to point up the jagged emotions in the text and music, whether it was through Beethoven-worthy shifts from piano to sforzando in the dynamics or in the sinister emphasis of the consonants. In that first chorus, we heard the growing hiss as the choir members leant on the double “s” – or the “eszett” – “grössten". Much later, when the crowd protested that they had no king but Caesar, the “k”s cut the air, “Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser”. The agitation also came across in the phrasing: when mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston delivered her fine and intelligent rendition of "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden", the orchestral accompaniment was defiantly detached. Throughout, the pauses between the words often felt as important as the words themselves. In the chorus "Who was it, Lord, did smite thee?" ("Wer hat dich so geschlagen?"), there were exaggerated gaps between every image, right down to the dramatic rallentando in the last line about “the host of torments that thou bore”. As well as bringing greater clarity to the lyrics this roughened up the texture, ensuring that despite the familiarity of the story our ears were never dulled to the message it conveyed. Bass-baritone James Rutherford was an imposing Jesus; almost too formidable in some ways, it was difficult to imagine how anyone had dared to confront him. Though he was wonderfully matched by Ashley Riches’ anguished Pilate, so compellingly distraught when the crowd chose to release Barrabas instead of Jesus, that for a moment you wondered if he was even going to let the crucifixion happen. There were some instances where the performances didn’t altogether match the power of the text and the music. At a couple of points, split-second tuning wobbles distracted from the dramatic tension. At a different point Ruairi Bowen’s tenor, though undeniably fine, didn’t soar to the emotional heights suggested by the lyrics “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbte Rucken/in allen Stücken dem Himmel gliche geht!” (“Imagine, that his blood-bespattered body/in every member is part of Heaven above”). For this is, as certain critics have pointed out, not just about the drama and the turbulence, but also about the cosmic Christ, who dies and rises again, bringing with him the vision of eternal life. This interpretation was fantastic for its spiky dissection of the work’s most difficult emotions. Yet it’s important too to evoke its more transcendent aspects, from the heavenly to the apocalyptic. Once more it was Pritchard who effortlessly embraced this range; not least in his description of how the earth quaked (“die Erde erbebete”) after Christ’s death. Riches too rose to the occasion in his marvelling interrogation of whether, now Christ was dead, he himself was eternally free from death, “bin ich vom Sterben frei gemacht?” Now that the drama was over, Layton allowed the phrasing to flow more lyrically in the chorus, “Rest well, beloved, sweetly sleeping” (“Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”). Then, for the exquisite final Chorale we were back to a deliberate, textured progression, which was eventually eclipsed by a luminous crescendo that signalled both the end and the ascent to Heaven.” Rachel Halliburton, The Arts Desk

★★★★★ “JS Bach’s St John Passion opens with a tremendous 14-bar instrumental prelude in which its driving semiquaver rhythm and clashes in oboes and flutes are as unsettling as the events on Golgotha soon to be narrated. If those clashes from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did not bleat and bite as they can, it was perhaps because conductor Stephen Layton was hurtling through Bach’s stirring G minor turbulence towards its harmonic goal, that first mighty shout of “Herr!”. From that striking entry on, Polyphony, Layton’s ever-impressive choir, were superb. Conductor and choir presented the choruses and chorales very beautifully, and were particularly impressive in the “turba” sections that are the nearest Bach got to writing opera. The drama never slackened in Layton’s hands, becoming especially intense in the longer Part Two, when antagonism of the vengeful crowd is shown in varied musical exchanges. Evangelist Nick Pritchard has become one of the best in that crowded trade, always holding a closed copy of the score, doubtless to show he is here to narrate the actions that will fulfil the prophecies in The Book. His singing had convincing authority and pathos, and fine tone. Only when Mary appears by the cross did the sentiment become, well, a touch Marian. James Rutherford brought to the role of Jesus all the gravitas with which he has invested Wagner’s Wotan and Hans Sachs, both of whom make personal sacrifices for the sake of others; perhaps a Bach Passion is not such a stretch. His vocal dignity is the crucial quality he brought to the role, throughout and not least in the scenes with Pilate. The soloists formed a strong young team, perhaps as good as can be assembled nowadays. The freshness of voice is always welcome in the most familiar works, when no one is wearied from too many successive seasons of Messiahs and Passions. Helen Charlston is styled mezzo-soprano but sounds like a true alto in her numbers. “Es ist vollbracht” had all the emotional weight such a voice brings and was considerably aided throughout by the cello of Andrew Skidmore and the viola da gamba of Kate Conway. The sweet tones and mellifluous phrasing of soprano Rowan Pierce made a good contrast, ideally matching the two flutes in “Ich folge dir”. Bass Ashley Riches was commanding in everything Bach asked of him. As Pilate he was a voice of reason, if exasperated at times. His Arioso “Betratchte meine Seel’”, with as slow a tempo as the evening asked of him, was superbly sustained, and his numbers with chorus were well integrated. Tenor Ruairi Bowen is another one to watch, with his noble sound and considerable skill – the angular lines of “Ach mein Sinn” presented him with no problem. The OAE and Polyphony continue the tradition both groups bring to this greatest work of the European Baroque. I accept that many regard the St Matthew Passion as the greater work, but with the St John Passion in as compelling a performance as this, given without an interval, I am a witness on Golgotha, fearful of what lies ahead. Or I am in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche on Good Friday 1724, listening to this disturbing new work of our new Kantor – and fearful of what lies ahead. Whether surrounded by lanterns and weapons, or musicians and fellow congregation members, I am deeply involved. With the great St Matthew Passion, I can only ever be an audience member.” Roy Westbrook, Bachtrack

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