Dunedin Consort/Hebrides Ensemble: Passio
St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.
Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?
A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.
Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.
If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.
All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”
Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.