Arts: What a great lover Bach must have been

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THE WORST of times, the best of times. Having purveyed a certain amount of gloom on this page recently, it was with joy and relief that I found myself at the Albert Hall last Sunday for the St Matthew Passion, conducted by Philipe Herreweghe, an example not only of an inspiring musical experience, but of one which could scarcely have been contemplated even twenty years ago. This extraordinary, monstrous hall - for which one only feels more and more affection as the years go by - with its flying saucers, its serried tiers, its gargantuan organ and, during the proms, at least, its palm court trappings, has witnessed countless performances of the work, almost all of them of a scale commensurate with the building, with great massed choirs, operatically declaiming soloists, vast orchestral forces. These performances were events as stirring to the performers as to the audience, an act of collective solemnity which was both religious and artistic, affirming the high seriousness of art.

How astonishingly different was the performance on Sunday. With the two choirs (supplemented by a boys' choir in the first part) and the two orchestras both of modest dimensions, with the soloists not separate from the rest of the forces but part of them, there was a simplicity and directness to every page of the score which revealed it for the totally original piece that it is. All sense of reassurance was stripped from the work. The narrative, as delivered by the incomparable Ian Bostridge, was a horror story, the more horrifying for being told without embellishment and without attitude, related with as factual a sense of calamity as the messenger in Sophocles; the terrible story that lies at the centre of Christianity, savage, doomy, anguished, especially here, where there is - since it was composed for Good Friday - no resurrection, no redemption. In this version the smallness of the crowd, hot for Christ's blood, makes it so much more frightening; not the mob, but a group of individuals bent on murder. The characters in the story - Pilate and his wife, the false witnesses, Christ himself, grimly stoical - make their interventions like characters in a play, pithy and to the point. But the central narrative is only one element of the Passion. The great mourning choruses which surround the work infuse everything with their grief, culminating in the final pleas for rest for the man-God as he lies in the tomb. Here, too, Herreweghe's slim forces and his swift, urgent tempi took these out of the area of the monumental, rendering them painfully personal. Each member of the chorus was making his or her individual plea; the plight of Jesus was a personal anguish for them, an outrage, a scandal, an inconceivable injustice .

It was this same spirit that infused what I suppose is the heart of the Passion, the arias which comment on the story with highly charged emotion, stepping back from it as if aghast, in the conviction that it is our sin - the sins of each one of us - that has led to this cruel calamity. Something of the condition of the faithful of early eighteenth-century Leipzig was here expressed which is far from the lofty sentiment which the oratorio singers of earlier generations brought. There is an intensity, an almost neurotic longing for peace, for healing, for relief from pain and release from guilt, elaborated by Bach with a fervour that - in this performance - was almost sexual, one thought, with a blush of what a great lover the old man must have been, with his unending tender inspirations, his urgent caresses, his inexhaustible responsiveness. "Ebarme Dich" (Have mercy, Lord), sung by Andreas Scholl with a tone at once clarion and heart-breakingly tender seemed as if it never needed to end at all; the baroque wind instruments with their exquisite colour consolingly entwining the pitiful melody: heart's case and heart's ache seamlessly interwoven.

Four thousand, two hundred and fifty four people, a quarter of them standing, listened keenly to this music for nearly three-and a-half-hours. None of them was in a dinner jacket, no part of the house was block-booked by a corporation, there was no glamorous retiring room for champagne receptions. There was only the music - the story - and us. At this point one becomes overcome by grateful sentiment that this extraordinary festival exists, sturdier and more popular than ever. Nick Kenyon, whatever controversy he may have courted elsewhere, has ensured its survival, and he will remain at its helm for another five years. And then? The proms remains the single great survivor of a lost world of broadcasting in which cost-effectiveness is a low priority or no priority: in which the provision of a palpable good to the maximum number of people is the inspiration. Would that it were the model, not the exception.