St Matthew Passion in London

St Matthew Passion, BWV244 [sung in German]

Evangelist – James Gilchrist
Christus – Jonathan Brown

Gillian Keith (soprano), Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Walker (tenor) & Leigh Melrose (bass-baritone)

London Symphony Chorus
Choir of Eltham College

City of London Sinfonia
Joseph Cullen

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 21 March, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in a 1748 portrait by HaussmannThis was an inconsistent performance of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” with quite a few own-goals. The soloists, other than the Evangelist and Christus, were isolated to one side of the platform and required to take their position in the centre of it when singing, and then wander back. Also detracting was having the work sung in German. Usually, I am ardent defender of using the original language but some works lend themselves to being sung in the vernacular. “St Matthew Passion” is one of them. It is inherently, a work of collective worship. Bach, after all, set it in German (rather than Latin) for his congregation and the whole point of the Protestant Reformation was to bring religion to the people. Even the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged this (to an extent) in its Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which forbade the Latin Tridentine Mass. Furthermore, the programme text was in absurdly small print and also less than helpful was having the German and English text separated by pages rather than adjacent in columns.

James GilchristIn terms of the music-making, once disruptive latecomers had found their seats, this account of “St Matthew Passion” benefited enormously from the experience of James Gilchrist as the Evangelist – once again. (I had heard him sing the role – in English – just two weeks ago at the Royal Festival Hall.) He brought an authority and a sympathy that was captivating. He lives and breathes the words and battled against the generally inexpressive performance as a whole, which at around 160 minutes was ‘average’ in length but felt rushed in parts, particularly in the Chorales. Gilchrist has clarity, subtlety and power at his disposal, and was the only one of the soloists who really tried to emote; the others, in the main, stood and delivered.

Jonathan BrownAs Christus, Jonathan Brown could sing the words but he struggled to communicate their meaning: when Christ predicts his own betrayal Brown was, remarkably, nonchalant! On the whole there was little to admire amongst the other soloists who failed to communicate meaning and clarity to the words. There were crumbs of comfort: in his second recitative and aria Thomas Walker at last managed to inject some feeling when pleading with Christ to hold His tongue through the accusations of the False Witnesses. Such was the lack of detail in Gillian Keith’s contributions that the repetition in the Arias felt like a chore, to be endured, not marvelled at. Katalin Károlyi was rather weak, too: there was little lamentation in the Aria that opens Part Two (“Ah! Now is my Saviour gone!”) and when Christ is observed bound and ready to be crucified her voice lacked essential purity. Leigh Melrose was replacing Brindley Sherratt. Melrose had difficulty enunciating and reaching for the lowest notes and whilst not quite achieving a sense of suffering as when, as Simon of Cyrene, he bore the cross of Christ, it was clearly from his heart.

The London Symphony Chorus was on good form but some of the antiphonal effects were occasionally dulled. Cullen’s quick tempos in the Chorales robbed them of their sense of wonder and contemplation. Especially impressive, though, was the Choir of Eltham College; the boys sang very well and without scores.

The musicians of the City of London Sinfonia, forming the required two ensembles, adapted well to wayward direction though the placement of the first orchestra’s organ was at the front of the platform and often too loud. Charles Medlam, on viola da gamba, gave expert accompaniment, but the solo violin’s contributions passed without notice. Impressive were the oboe d’amore, the player finding the perfect balance between assertiveness and tranquillity.

Overall the performance lacked beauty and flow and was less moving and compelling than it should have been: there were too many conflicting ideas as to how the piece should be performed. Maybe more rehearsal and a clearer sense of direction and purpose would have sorted this out.

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