St Matthew Passion, BWV244 [sung in an English translation by Neil Jenkins]
Evangelist – James Gilchrist
Christ – Paul Whelan
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Timothy Robinson (tenor) & Roderick Williams (baritone)
The Bach Choir
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 9 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
“St Matthew Passion” is J. S. Bach’s largest-scale setting of the “Passion of Christ” written for performance at Vespers on Good Friday. Of the two that survive, “St John Passion” was first performed on Good Friday in 1724 and revived at least three times by 1749, and “St Matthew Passion (thought to have originated in 1727) was also performed in the 1730s and 1740s. During this time Bach re-worked his settings, probably trying to keep them ‘relevant’.
This concert marked a welcome return to the Royal Festival Hall for The Bach Choir’s annual performance of “St Matthew Passion”, perfect for a Sunday morning and afternoon. In his interview with David Hill on this site, my colleague Graham Rogers (no relation!) discusses how Hill performs the work. One example of ‘historical awareness’ is the pitch of the baroque instruments, a semitone lower than their ‘modern’ equivalents.
The obvious care and respect that Hill brought to the music paid immense dividends. His account, at about three hours, never wallowed in sentiment but was not light-footed, either. The clarity of both music and performance in conveying meaning by matching the sung words was vivid. During the chorus before the end of Part One the references to thunder and lightening were matched by players sounding like they were playing the storm movement from Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. There was a superbly played violin solo from the leader of the second orchestra during that great bass aria (#51 in the score) and throughout the contributions from woodwinds were exquisitely judged. Similarly, the solo violin from the first orchestra in the mezzo-soprano’s aria (#47) was aching in its beauty and in #26 there was a quite stunning oboe solo.
The performance opened in grand style with imposing choral announcements. The choral-singers were impressive, and having the choir carefully split produced some wonderful antiphonal effects to highlight Bach’s use of counterpoint. As appropriate the chorus was biting and vicious (when the crowd condemn Jesus) to sorrowful and regretful once Christ has died (“He was the Son of God”). For the Chorale after Christ’s death, scores were dispensed with, bringing added pathos as the words came from the heart. Indeed, the drama of the situation was highlighted by an extended pause immediately after Christ “yielded up the ghost” of at least fifteen seconds – very effective.
Of the soloists James Gilchrist’s Evangelist was the stand out. He lived in the moment of every word and made the many recitatives a musical joy. His was an ‘operatic’ performance. It is a fiendishly difficult role to pull off, carrying the story and coping with the many musical demands. His is an idiomatic tenor, which moulds to fit the situation. Power was at his command and his ability to generate momentum, such as when Christ is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, was well-judged. Within the same passage his introduction of Judas was vividly caught. In the true sense of the word he gave a pathetic account when he narrated Peter’s betrayal of Christ, which contrasted with the sense of biting regret when Jesus is condemned by His peers at His trial.Paul Whelan (Christ) was a humble presence, which fitted well, but he suffered from poor enunciation, though he improved.
Jane Irwin impressed with her diction and superb projection, which had no hint of being forced. Her voice had a warm, velvet texture that heartened the more grief-stricken passages, such as her (first) melancholic aria in Part One where she pleads to Jesus to “hear our crying”. When Jesus is arrested the soprano and mezzo sang a glorious duet, stricken with grief. It was here that the interjections of the chorus were vivid, too. Carolyn Sampson took a while to capture an appropriate mood and then capturing regret and longing perfectly in “For love my Saviour now is dying”. Roderick Williams impressed on many levels of characterisation; he tackled parts such as Pilate, Judas and Peter (bass arias were sung by Whelan) and Timothy Robinson gave a well-judged reflective account of the tenor’s participation.
This performance of “St Matthew Passion” verged on the ‘religious’ – all for the better. One also kept feeling that it truly was, as the old saying goes, the greatest opera that Bach never wrote. The final chorus was incredibly uplifting and demonstrated a performance that had reached the highest level. The audience observed the long-held tradition of no applause before or during the work.