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GRAMOPHONE (10/2023)
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Reviewer :
 Mark Seow


Continuum is ‘a pool of instrumentalists and singers that [director and harpsichordist Elina Albach] can rely on, and that enables her to perform almost any conceivable version of a piece’. Albach clearly rejoices in ambiguity, as nowhere in the booklet notes are we told who is in this configuration of Continuum: this listener, with nothing else to go on except for the photos, deduces that Liam Byrne is playing viola da gamba, Clara Blessing is the oboist and Philipp Lamprecht is on percussion. A simple list of the instrumentalists would suffice. The tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson gets prime billing, and rightly so; he is magisterial in this creative and superbly paced album that reconfigures the Passion narrative.


Kristjánsson first came to my attention on Good Friday 2020. From the glaring heat of the pandemic, he performed Bach’s St John Passion from St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig with Continuum in a reduced and spatially distanced arrangement for tenor, harpsichord, organ and percussion. It was a remarkable feat in which Kristjánsson sang the roles of Evangelist, Christ and Pilate – as well as Maid. Here, clutching 30 pieces of silver in the album’s cover art, Kristjánsson turns to the role of Judas – whose version of events is mute in Bach’s St John. Kristjánsson seeks to construct ‘a new story about Judas’, drawing on movements from Bach’s cantatas and St Matthew Passion to complicate the stereotype of the character as merely a villain.


Though there are intonation issues from Kristjánsson throughout this album, these cease to matter against the tantalising storytelling and emotional sincerity of his instrument. There is self-hate cast in burnt red, melisma suffused in hope. Kristjánsson is less singer, more musician – and I write that as an entirely good thing.


The album’s strength is its narrative, and Kristjánsson has done his homework in sourcing excellent structural proxies. We are gifted with a lesser-known ‘Erbarme dich’ from Cantata No 55, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht; instead of ‘Es ist vollbracht’ from the St John, we have the achingly beautiful ‘Ich fürchte nicht des Todes Schrecken’ from Cantata No 183, Sie werden euch in den Bann tun; ‘Ich traue seiner Gnaden’ glistens in the cathartic benevolence usually provided by ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ from the St Matthew.


The album’s closing movement is an aria from Cantata No 97, In allen meinen Taten, in which, steered by the gentle authority of Albach, the obbligato violinist Sergey Malov swirls in tender expression. But perhaps the most touching moment in the album is the eucharistic prayer ‘Trinket alle daraus’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Kristjánsson subverts a common modernday interpretation that tends towards basso profundo: instead, it’s a song woven in fragility – an exquisite embodiment of a God made of pierceable flesh. The accompaniment is perfectly sparse, and Byrne might as well be plucking on my very own heart-strings.

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