Review: Arvo Pärt’s Passio from Tenebrae and Aurora Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square

Oratorios are a strange listening experience for a non-believer. Liturgical music even more so. I attend such performances with an assumption that I should really be a fully 'paid-up member' of the belief system before I can fully appreciate the work I'm about to listen to.  

After Arvo Pärt's Passio last night at St John's Smith Square, I'm a little bit closer to finalising a listening strategy for such performances.

What drew me to this event – the selling point I used to hook my OH in – was the chance to hear Tenebrae live. Their latest release on Signum had a big impact on me, Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden particularly stunning). The cynic in me questioned whether what I had responded to emotionally – the warm tone and lavishly-upholstered legato – was the result of a production process.

It wasn't. Tenebrae is like that live. A small group of voices not only sings with unflinching power and an awesome sound but does so without fussiness or distraction.

And, as there turned out to be on stage last night when one of their own faints part-way through the performance, first-responding colleagues move swiftly to provide the necessary support whilst still miraculously ensuring the atmosphere all on the platform have worked hard to create remains intact. They are, quite simply, remarkable performers on a whole variety of levels.

Arvo Pärt's score is lean. Melodic motifs capture the natural rhythms and cadence of the passion text. The resulting musical language has a raw simplicity to, powered by a spirit depicted in the contrary motion heard between the instruments and the voices. The end product isn't soporific by any means, but hypnotic. Subtle shifts of urgency and intensity are introduced with suspended notes linking transitioning chords – a sort of pedal note but implemented in reverse. There were moments when the intensity was almost too much too bear – a sort of emotional pain of an entirely different kind from the everyday and one that promises to linger long beyond the performance is over. I've experienced that in performances of Mahler symphonies before now. That kind of experience is down to the alchemy in the music.

It's also an efficient piece of storytelling where each word appears to be given equal weight, statements are hurried, and meaning isn't lost. The performance didn't tarry by any means; the work allows everyone the time to consider what it is that we're listening to. 

Bass Jimmy Holliday overcame some difficulties with his voices, playing the role of Jesus with touching humility, and warmth. Of the Evangelist chorus – a beguiling interweaving of human voices that gave the narrative an almost balletic quality throughout – special mention to David de Winter (tenor) and Hannah Cooke (mezzo) whose sang with poise, precision and a delectable tone.

Come the end, conductor Nigel Short held a silent stage and audience at St John's Smith Square hanging for what felt like an eternity. No-one moved. No-one dared. No-one could. Such was the impact of 75 minutes concluded by a blistering Amen. Remarkably focussed music-making.

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