St Matthew Passion – Robert King

St Matthew Passion, BWV244

Evangelist – James Gilchrist (tenor)
Christus – Peter Harvey (bass)

Gillian Keith (soprano)
Diana Moore (alto)
Charles Daniels (tenor)
Brett Polegato (bass)

The Choristers of Wells Cathedral
Choir of the King’s Consort

The King’s Consort
Robert King

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 22 March, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The Bach family referred to J.S. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” as “the great Passion”, as it exceeded in structure and scale any of previous work of this type. The work was still written firmly in the Lutheran tradition and can be sung with an ensemble of just one voice to a part (with optional ripieno group) as was amply demonstrated by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort in this same venue in 2003. But the sheer breadth of the work tempts conductors into trying to match the scale of Bach’s imagination with a performance group of commensurate size.

Robert King and the King’s Consort, fresh from performances in Spain, performed “St Matthew Passion” with a choir and orchestra who could barely be fitted onto the platform: six soloists, a choir of some 50 voices (women, men, boys and girls) and 40 instrumentalists.

King anchored his interpretation firmly in the European oratorio tradition, “St Matthew Passion” as it might have been performed if Handel had chosen to mount it in London (not such a mad idea; after all Handel and Telemann were friends and Telemann promoted Handel’s works in Hamburg). Giving the work with these forces, in a period-aware performance, was not performing the work as Bach did but as he might have intended it; but the programme note gave no explanation of the rationale for choosing the forces used, which is a shame.

By moving away from one-voice-to-a-part and using six soloists, an important aspect of the numerology of the work is ignored. Number symbolism meant a lot to Bach and he took some care to ensure that there was two of everything in the Passion. It was intended that the Christus, the Evangelist and the Arias be sung by a group of eight soloists, four associated with each choir and orchestra. I also feel that the arias, which have a chorale backing, work better if the chorale is sung by just four singers so that there is a more equal balance between the singers, making the arias more like elaborate quintets.

As was to be expected, the King’s Consort provided music-making of the highest order. The Passion opened thrillingly with a big-boned performance of the opening chorus. Was King to give us an old-fashioned, large-scale, Romantic performance, albeit one informed by historical practice? No.

King took the arias and chorales at pretty swift tempos. James Gilchrist matched this concept with a pretty fleet rendition of the Evangelist’s text. But Gilchrist never skimmed over the music or the meaning and his rapidity of delivery never compromised intensity. When needed he could turn the screw up a notch to achieve remarkable drama. He was well matched by the Christus of Peter Harvey. Harvey has a lovely, well-rounded baritone and was well able to voice the dignity and the emotion the role requires. A deeper, darker tone would have added an essential gravitas.

Gravitas was something that King achieved sparingly. The arias were notable for the dance-like nature of their accompaniment; the playing of the King’s Consort was exceptional and King’s attention to detail was remarkable. All four soloists delivered performances of poised musicality with lovely shaped lines. But only Daniels gave something more, an attention to the meaning of the words and striving intensity. Granted, he tended to push his voice, but this was understandable given his emotional strength; the other singers were notable for the poised coolness of their delivery.

The singing of the choir was excellent: warm and responsive, not a hint of strain, and strongly dramatic. King took nearly all the chorales at swift tempos: no possibility of congregational involvement here. The choir responded brilliantly, but this only served to emphasise the fleetness of the conception rather than anchoring the Passion in emotional depth.

This was not a religious account, but given the work’s emotional richness I felt it a shame that many of the performers (Gilchrist and Harvey apart) should have somehow bypassed this element. There was also much to relish, and I took away the gloriously passionate final chorus which King and his forces presented.

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