Felix Mendelssohn’s sawn-off version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion removes the more-reflective arias and half-a-dozen chorales for the groundbreaking 1829 performance in Berlin. Certainly Mendelssohn’s reductions make for a more compact experience, the drama more tightly drawn and the uncut Evangelist role creating a fast-paced narration. Pretty much untouched are the main choruses but in this rendition their emotional weight was variable.
Nicholas Mulroy made for an assured Evangelist, idiosyncratic, and when not pushing his way through the text there was melting warmth especially at contemplative moments where he would pluck out effortless high notes. Jimmy Holliday – from the BBC Singers and replacing an indisposed Bragi Jónsson – was thoroughly at home as a smoky-toned Jesus, with an impressive yet vulnerable delivery.
Under Peter Dijkstra choruses did not always engage, the opening one lacking authority (except for the forcibly rendered chorale line). Although matters improved it was a shame that the tempos chosen for the closing section of each half precluded any sense of dignity or solemnity: ‘O Mensch beweind ein Sündegross’ is a lament not a steeplechase; much the same in ‘Donner und blitzen’ where the ambitious speed caused strangulated sounds from higher voices and insecurity of togetherness. An a cappella chorale, not listed in the unhelpful programme, inserted immediately after Christ’s death, was stunning – the BBC Singers suddenly on form.
Mendelssohn’s version is not just about cuts. There are also other adjustments, such as a fortepiano replacing harpsichord and the addition of clarinets, strikingly effective in ‘Ach Golgotha’, beautifully sung by Ciara Hendrick. A further change is the upward transposition of ‘Erbarme dich’, affectingly rendered by soprano Alice Gribbin and where St James’ Baroque really came alive. Elsewhere, the ensemble played efficiently but without any strong rhythmic vitality with lines blurred and colourless. If that was enervating so too were the pauses between sections, unnecessarily long.
- Recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday February 13 at 7.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)