Prom 21: The Passion of Matthew

St Matthew Passion, BWV244

Evangelist – John Mark Ainsley
Christ – Michael Volle

Susan Gritton & Carolyn Sampson (sopranos)
Diana Moore & Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Werner Güra (tenor)
Stephan Loges (baritone)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)

Choristers of Southwark Cathedral
Choir of the English Concert
New London Chamber Choir
The English Concert
Trevor Pinnock

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 4 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Bach’s St Matthew Passion adapted effortlessly to the Royal Albert Hall. In solemnity and grandeur, the concert gave the space of the hall a sense of being the interior of a lofty cathedral – as exalted and colourful as the stained glass of Chartres or the polychrome of Sienna. At other times the purity of line of the period instruments or of the soloists – one thinks especially of Carolyn Sampson in ’Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ or the solo violin in ’Erbarme Dich’ – showed that the barest and most intimate of expression could fill a vast expanse.

At its best, the authentic movement has done to Baroque music what its subject matter tonight, Lutheranism, did to Christianity itself. Just as Picander’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel, which forms the text of the arias and chorales in the work, addresses God simple and directly, so this was a performance with an emotional immediacy, something that achieved spirituality through an entirely human understanding of suffering and acceptance.

It is the Evangelist who binds together the whole work. He is the storyteller, the bridge between the bleakness of Christ’s Passion and its meditative exploration in Bach’s imagination.John Mark Ainsley made a natural and experienced narrator, emotional and matter-of-fact in turn, always moving the story on. Michael Volle, singing Christ with calm and measure, conveying a man utterly at peace with his own mind, was a perfect counterpart. The team of soloists was generally strong and appropriately cast, Susan Gritton and Diana Moore notably extrovert, Brindley Sherratt especially warm in the final grief-stricken section; in all, an excellently integrated team.

Pinnock’s interpretation, with the quick tempi that are now a commonplace of Baroque playing, showed a quiet but effective awareness of the dramatic nature of the work throughout. In the strong characterisation of the minor parts – among which Lawrence Wallington’s blusteringly disloyal Peter and Christopher Foster’s bureaucratically anaemic Pilate stood out – and in the meltingly beautiful obbligato playing, notably of Rachel Podger’s violin, Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute and Jonathan Manson’s viola da gamba, there were endless small touches that contributed to an exemplary sense of structure and balance in the whole work.

The Passion moves from an initial questioning and anguish at the prospect of Christ’s suffering, through a less intense central section, characterised by the swift development of the story and the muted sadness of the believers, to its infinite profound expression of resignation and mourning in its conclusion. In this Prom, this dramatic evolution remained compelling, transparent and moving throughout.

The choral singing, despite the use of several choirs, was exemplary – spiky in the crowd scenes, hauntingly tender when reflecting on Jesus’s fate. Always precise and beautiful in intonation, the playing of The English Concert, very much in the centre of their repertoire, offered a completely appropriate accompaniment.

If there was nothing unexpected in style or quality about this performance, it did no more than let the music speak for itself – but that ’no more’ is the absolute and unsurpassed pinnacle of Western culture. In this performance Bach’s St Matthew Passion truly became The Greatest Story Ever Told.

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