Admittedly, it has been quite some time since I heard a St Matthew Passion in a concert hall as opposed to a church. The Concert Hall of the Danish Radio in Copenhagen is an impressive building both inside and out; it was well-filled and buzzing with excitement for a Passion featuring the radio orchestra, choir as well as young and attractive international soloists. Led by Andrea Marcon, most known for his very successful ensemble, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, this Passion performance was disappointingly messy from start to finish. “Murphy’s Law” prevailed and too many things went very wrong which was sad, as soloists, choir and orchestra were clearly committed and handled their Bach with organic musicality. Frankly, the problem was the conductor.

Andrea Marcon © Harold Hoffmann
Andrea Marcon
© Harold Hoffmann

Nowadays we are quite used to strange looking conducting, ever since the historically informed performance practice movement inspired many keyboard players to take up batons: traditional conducting technique is not often seen, neither is two armed independence nor the clear triangles and squares of the symphonic tradition, where the upbeat is clearly up and the downbeat is the most important accent. The crucial work Harnoncourt, Koopman, Brüggen and Herreweghe do is, of course, during rehearsal when the structures of Baroque music is discussed with orchestral musicians: lines are recognized, bowings corrected and accents are set. The influence of the recording industry being what it now is, many symphonic players have heard their fair share of Baroque long before the specialists come to town.

Marcon uses a constant circular motion augmented with pointed fingers to lead. He hits both down and upbeats somewhere in these circles. This entire Passion was nerve-wracking as a result. The next major misunderstanding between soloists, solo instrumentalists and continuo players was always just a few bars away. Well-playing instrumental soloists dropped out, soloists dropped notes, even this experienced choir was on occasion insecure about commencing the next line of some of the chorales due to the vague nature of Marcon’s circles. Neither of the two continuo organists took any lead whatsoever so throughout both recitatives and arias, all had to fend for themselves.

There were some exceptionally fine moments, most of these occurring when the conductor set the ensembles free. Fine ensembles they surely are: vigorous and energetic instrumentalists, a warm, full bodied and self-supporting choir. The boys’ choir appeared angelic high up in the balcony, but we never heard them as the organ drowned them out with a not very well-tempered unison accompaniment – another sad lack of leadership or poor musical decision.

Bach is very difficult to destroy; his music is overwhelming even in the worst of times. The public in attendance was very happy with this performance. Yet it is truly sad when the St Matthew Passion suffers sloppy leadership and all involved are deserted to their fate. There has been a strong Passion tradition in Denmark since a Mendelssohn inspired revival by composer Niels Gade way back in 1875. One can only look forward to more solid conducting skills for the next Passion in the beautiful hall in Copenhagen with these fine Danish Radio ensembles.