There was a slight sense of deja vu at Friday's concert. It was less than a year ago that I last heard John Eliot Gardiner play Bach; that was at the Edinburgh festival and then too he was performing with his Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Indeed, he was even wearing the same black shirt with the same bright green cuffs.
What was not the same, however, was the programme. Then it had included some minor cantatas and some Handel; last night we were treated to one of the greatest choral works in the repertoire, the B minor mass.
The result was largely as one might expect from these forces. Both playing and singing were of an extremely high standard, and it was often very beautiful as a result. Soloists were drawn from the choir, so inevitably they were a little mixed, but never less than good and some, such as the bass towards the end of the Credo or the alto in the Angus Dei were really rather special. What's more, thanks to the size of the Maltings, the problem several of them suffered in Edinburgh of getting lost in the vastness of the Usher Hall did not occur. The instrumental solos from the orchestra were similarly fine and the chamber organ had a nice meaty sound to it.
The Kyrie, always tricky to bring off well, did feel rather stodgy but thereafter Gardiner found more energy and sparkle. The Sanctus lacked the absolute energy and unstoppable momentum of the very best readings but the final Angus Dei was both beautiful and moving.
Ultimately, though, for most of the evening, I was left cold. Yes, everything was beautifully sculpted, meticulously crafted, yet for me, and I was decidedly in the minority, the passion and the spirituality at the work's core were missing. There is something clinical about Gardiner's approach; conversely, the artists who speak to me tend to be those who wear their heart on their sleeve. To some extent it goes to the crux of my feelings about Gardiner's approach to historically informed performance (but that's a much longer blog post). It's difficult, because there wasn't actually anything wrong with it, except that it simply didn't speak to me.
Well, except the non-musical annoyances: the performance suffered from the same silly quirks that were present in Edinburgh. I like the idea of using soloists from the choir but I'm much less convinced of the wisdom of bringing them down to the front each time. This disrupts momentum or results in players rushing to get back to their place in time. To make matters worse, what with the baffles at the back of the stage, there actually wasn't enough space for it and they tended to have great difficulty picking their way to the front, or more often getting back onto the rostrum. Some had to take absurdly long routes. For the most part this wasn't too audible, but I suspect you may hear a fair bit of clomping about if you tune into the broadcast.