Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall, reviewed by The Times
The Times, by Richard Morrison, 03 Apr 2013
****

After the eternal Lutheran liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, JS Bach probably relished a day off on Easter Monday. But no respite on this bank holiday!
John Eliot Gardiner, 70 this month, led a nine-hour Bach marathon that included concerts, panel discussions, and illustrated lecture and even a mass-participation Bach chorale – thousands of us singing (in four-part harmony) the final verse of the Easter cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, just as Bach’s congregation would have done. “Triple-dip recession therapy!” declared our trainer, Howard Moody, and nobody disagreed. Despite the superlative singing of the Monteverdi Choir through the rest of the marathon, that moment of choral communility must be ranked as the day’s high point.

Elsewhere there were messy aspects, particularly of presentation. We could have done with less talking (though Gardiner’s quip that “everything that has happened in music since Bach has been a disappointment” earned him a cheer) and more breaks for hot drinks. Is the Albert Hall’s heating broken? Or was it a case of misplaced authenticity: recreating the chilly rigours of churchgoing in 18th-century Liepzig? Either way; the cold seemed to affect some of the instrumentalists. Alban Gerhardt’s intonation went awry in an otherwise supple account of Bach’s Cello Suite No 6, and in the evening perfor,ances of the Mass in B minor there were a few unnerving misshaps from the English Baroque Soloists.

On the other hand, Viktoria Mullova was utterly persuasive in the Partita No 2 for violin, the one culminating in the gigantic Chaconne. On gut strings and with minimum vibrato she produced a sinuous, even raw sound, yet projected perfectly the overarching architecture and myriad moods. It was a worthy match for Gardiner’s comprehensively nuanced and operatic interpretations of Christ lag in Todesbanden and an infectiously joyous Singet dem Herrn. His approach to the mighty Mass in B minor had its over-pointed moments, especially in the Credo where the plainsong allusions were barked out like parade-ground commands and the Crucifixus controversially sung by four hard-edged solo voices. And his policy of using soloists plucked from the choir resulted in pristine but mostly uncharismatic arias, though Nick Pritchard’s Benedictus and Meg Bragle’s Agnus Dei were touchingly intimate.

But how marvellous to hear Bach’s swirls of choral counterpoint delivered with such fearless ebullience and clarity, and the near-surreal harmonies of Et exspecto resurrectionem imbued with such a sense of apocalyptic anticipation. A spine-tingling climax to an ambitious and rewarding day.