Review: Bach – St Matthew Passion, BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, St David’s Hall, Cardiff.
This soul-searching performance of Bach’s choral masterpiece was especially powerful and poignant given the troubled and uncertain times in which we live.
It was entirely right and fitting that conductor Harry Bicket and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales should choose to perform the immense St Matthew Passion rather than the composer’s shorter St John Passion.
The St John Passion closes with an ecstatic vision of our souls being carried to Heaven by angels, ending with a blast of joy and triumph.
Our souls seem destined for a somewhat darker place in the St Matthew Passion. There is little sense of joy or triumph in this sombre account of Jesus’s journey to the Cross and beyond.
Bach’s music lifts the story’s above faith and time, making it always immediate and relevant. The Innocent is slaughtered at the hands of a brutal, senseless mob while others on the side-lines express hand-wringing horror or pious sympathy. The people of Ukraine must surely relate to that.
There is an unrelenting bleakness to the St Matthew Passion, but also a kind of terrible beauty that Yeats talked of in his poem, Easter 1916.
Force and tenderness
It was reassuringly clear from the opening chorus that the choir was going to be close to the heights of its considerable powers, combining force and tenderness which was mirrored by superb playing by the orchestra.
The orchestra was actually split in two. Orchestra One, led by Lesley Hatfield was on the left side of the stage, while Orchestra Two, led by Nick Whiting was on the right. It produced playing of balance and clarity under Bicket’s subtle and unobtrusive direction.
There was also an impressive clarity and immediacy to Jeremy Budd’s performance as Evangelist, while David Shipley’s portrayal of Jesus was both stern and deeply emotional.
There were many highlights which together made for a satisfying and coherent performance of this huge work.
In the first half, baritone James Newby was forceful and expressive in the Aria “Gladly will I agree to take Cross and cup upon myself.” Indeed, Newby gave a heartfelt and genuinely emotional performance throughout.
The only disappointment with this performance was the interval which lasted an hour to allow those audience members who had booked it in advance to enjoy a cream tea. Bach’s St Matthew Passion is surely not a cream tea sort of occasion.
The lengthy interruption served only to disrupt the narrative and break the spell that had been cast in the first half. Returning to the hall having scoffed a cream tea from a box to listen to Bach’s harrowing account of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion was hardly appropriate.
Mercifully, contralto Jess Dandy and the choir led us quickly back into the sublime with an exceptional performance of the opening aria of part two.
Dandy and Orchestra Two went on to give what was probably the outstanding performance of the afternoon with a breathtaking account of the Aria: “If the tears on my cheeks are of no avail.” It certainly brought a tear to my eye.
Tenor Anthony Gregory gave a gripping performance of the Aria: “Patience, patience, when false tongues do sting me,” while soprano Mhairi Lawson gave a haunting account of the Aria: ‘For love will my Redeemer die.”
The musicians, both individually and together, were on top form throughout.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” ” My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ asks Jesus towards the end of the St Matthew Passion.
It’s a question which will resonate with many today, especially those in Ukraine.
It certainly resonated with the audience at this performance, whether or not they had partaken of a cream tea.
The performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Wednesday 13 April at 7pm and available on BBC Sounds
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Looking forward to Tuesday’s Radio 3 transmission – hopefully without the hour long interval!