Bach Marathon, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

Even after the loss of the morning session with the St John Passion (dropped when a sponsor withdrew), this marathon offered a good workout. Over nine hours, Bach was serenaded by solo violin, cello, piano and organ, hymned by the choir, and his work and personality were dissected by musicologists and professors of psychology, neurology and medicine.

Putting such an event in the Royal Albert Hall raised the stakes – for better or worse. The energising spirit was conductor John Eliot Gardiner, 70 this year and coincidentally celebrating the conclusion of his ambitious project to record the complete Bach cantatas with the release of the 28th and last volume of the series this month.

On a musical level his Bach marathon was a gold medal winner. It could not be expected that solo Bach would work at all in such a large venue, but Alban Gerhardt’s performance of the Cello Suite No.6 was as subtly expressive as any, and violinist Viktoria Mullova’s more severe style brought impressive concentration to the Partita No.2. Even better was John Butt’s organ recital, which for 45 minutes transformed the Royal Albert Hall’s huge dinosaur of an instrument into an elegant, incisive Baroque organ.

The day had started at lunchtime with an outstanding performance of one of Bach’s motets by the Monteverdi Choir and members of the English Baroque Soloists. The motets have long been among Gardiner’s most inspiring achievements and the same delicacy and precision carried over to the B Minor Mass in the evening. Rather than going out in a blaze to fill the big hall, this drew its listeners in. High points included a hushed “Crucifixus”, sung by a solo quartet, and a “Hosanna” of exceptional clarity and dance-like joy.

The panel discussions did not get far, but at least they were lively. So where did this event go wrong? Quite simply, the hall was two-thirds empty and many of those who had turned up did not look very interested. Gardiner had devised a brilliant programme, but not found the right occasion for it. With Radio 3 present to broadcast the whole day live, it seems obvious that everything about it asked to be a Prom. Please book a repeat for the BBC Proms 2014 now.

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