Rattle's Bach" is how the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra publicised its St. Matthew Passion at the weekend. It could as easily have been "Rattle's Passion", given the spontaneity and cumulative emotional power which distinguished the first of two sold-out performances of this baroque choral masterpiece. The CBSO, playing on modern instruments, showed that exquisitely voiced accompaniments, sensitively shaped and sympathetically phrased, needn't be the preserve of period instrument orchestras. Sung in German, and discreetly surtitled, with the lightest of staging applied to the lay-out, it may have been a public concert in a large space, but in this totally dedicated and utterly concentrated account the St. Matthew Passion felt like a piece of intimate music theatre.
The lamenting opening choral fantasia set the scene perfectly for the Evangelist to begin narrating the Passion, or suffering, of Christ. In Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, Rattle had a powerful protagonist. Singing from memory (quite a feat, even taking into account his appearance in the same role in a fully-staged Glyndebourne production), Padmore delivered an enthralling account in which his delivery became more impassioned and dramatically charged as he moved onto the crucifixion. His improvisatory freedom of dynamics and tempo, and lyrical authority, made it sound as if he really were recalling this dreadful sequence of events as they came back to him.
The choral forces looked alarmingly large, with the double choir packed in behind the orchestra, while the CBSO Children's Chorus, contributing the soaring ripieno chorale melody in the first number, added more than mere vocal colour in their salmon pink uniform. Yet, despite the apparent weightiness of the CBSO Chorus, the chorales and vivid choral interpolations were surprisingly fleet, delivered with such attention to textural detail that, when the harsh cry of "Barrabam!" or the brutal final demand that Jesus be crucified rang out, the effect was electrifying. Christian Gerhaher was a surprisingly soft-grained Christus, his responses measured and smoothly articulated.
Of the outstanding line-up of vocal soloists, the strongest contributions came from the soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena. Tilling, in radiant voice, sang with a magically repressed fervour, especially when exploring the theme of betrayal and denial in a heartbreaking account of "Blute nur". Kozena, not always quite audible in the lowest notes of this alto part, was the most theatrical of the soloists. In "Erbarme dich", her haunting melodic line elegantly complemented by Laurence Jackson's tender solo violin, and later in the urgent outburst "Erbarm es Gott!", she lacked nothing in expressivity.
In his exposed and impassioned plea "Geduld" the tenor Topi Lehtipuu was simply accompanied by Richard Tunnicliffe's plangent viola da gamba obbligato, Rattle taking a seat beside the soloists. Baritone Thomas Quasthoff, sharing the smaller parts with the other soloists, brought gruffness to Judas's lines, a frustrated bewilderment to those of Pontius Pilate, and was at his best in "Gebt mir mein Jesum wieder", matched by Catherine Arlidge's assured account of the concerto-like violin solo. Of the solo instrumental contributions, those of oboe and flute were of particular distinction – but the whole orchestra seemed galvanised by the renewal of its inspired partnership with its former music director.
The performance on Saturday was dedicated to the memory of the distinguished and much-loved British tenor Philip Langridge. Rattle recalled giving over 100 performances with him, including many with the CBSO. At Glyndebourne, in 2003, Rattle also conducted Langridge in the title-role of Mozart's Idomeneo, in which the conductor encountered the relative newcomer cast opposite Langridge, Magdalena Kozena – whom Rattle later married.
The concert is broadcast tonight at 6.30pm on Radio 3Reuse content