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Passio Review - Joe Conway / Peterborough Telegraph

13 April 2017


"Let's face it, contemporary classical music isn't everyone's cup of tea. Even enthusiasts for historic classical composers have shied away from what can often sound like discordant, jarring, and fragmentary noises which dispense with singable tunes and recognisable harmonies.


It's important to say that the music of Arvo Part isn't like that at all. The 81-year-old Estonian composer is often grouped with Henryk Gorecki and Sir John Tavener under the title of the 'Spiritual Minimalists.' And while their music is always individual there are qualities common to all three.


Sincere and serious, meditative and profound, these composers have produced deeply felt settings of religious texts which have achieved genuine popularity and crept into the repertoire of choirs the world over. Examples are works like Gorecki's Totus Tuus and Tavener's The Lamb, and this well-supported concert consisting of Arvo Part's Passio suggested a growing acceptance that some contemporary music can be accessible and meaningful after all.


Not the least fascinating aspect of the performance was working out how Part deploys his forces, vocal and instrumental. Standing on the left as you faced the high altar was a quartet of soprano, mezzo, tenor, and baritone soloists. They sang the verses of the fourth gospel, which describe Jesus' arrest, trial, and death. On the right was a similar quartet representing the crowd, while up a couple of steps were the two soloists.


Jesus himself, with his characteristic long, low-pitched notes, was sung by a slightly throaty Jonathon Midgely. While Pilate's high, nervous part was entrusted to Will Searle, possessor of a florid vibrato and irreproachable intonation. The soloists were discreetly accompanied by Alex Goodwin playing the St John's organ. Finally, placed centrally behind the singers a quartet of violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon completed the Facade Ensemble line-up.


Interestingly each group of singers and players had its own individual music. The quartet of evangelists for instance consistently sang in an austere, almost ritual manner that recalled Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. In contrast the crowd was entrusted with exultant major chords occasionally suggesting the rapturous influence of Messiaen. For all the talk of Part's special compositional method of tintinnabulation with its suggestion of persistent bell-like sounds, what actually came across was a brisk, cut-and-thrust delivery of the harrowing story.


This isn't to imply that this performance lacked emotion, quite the contrary. From the thrilling opening chorus to the final blazing chord of D major, Passio proved to be a thoroughly compelling and riveting experience. Much of this due to the appropriately passionate, insightful and inspiring conducting of Benedict Collins Rice."

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