St Matthew Passion, St George’s, Hanover Square


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The Independent Culture

Passions are running high among the oppressed populace, and a weak colonial administrator decides to appease the angry crowd by throwing them a celebrated rebel as a sacrifice.

The victim is ritually reviled, then tortured to death in a manner once favoured in imperial China; an earthquake becomes nature’s comment, as the story is told and retold. A topical tale, when you think about it, sadly more applicable to our world than JS Bach’s. But it’s a tribute to Bach’s imagination that he should have made of it the most powerful music-drama ever written.

For the burghers of 18th century Leipzig, Passions were performed in the context of Good Friday Vespers, but were also regarded as a good night out. So it was nice to be able to recreate that experience – complete with congregational hymns and a sermon (admittedly of a complacently we’re-all-right Christian sort) – in the oak-panelled church where Handel was a worshipper when the St Matthew Passion was composed. The packed congregation – seats at £35 and a queue for returns - was instructed not to applaud.

With Laurence Cummings directing from the harpsichord/organ, and some fine principals heading the chorus of the period-instrument London Handel Orchestra, this towering masterpiece was in ideal hands. Though the forces were small, it was clear that Bach’s scoring for two orchestras and choruses would work powerfully, and the opening phrase ‘Come ye daughters, share my mourning’ seemed to surge up out of the earth. Casting of the Evangelist is always crucial, and in Nathan Vale they struck gold: this young tenor sings with wonderfully expressive clarity, and his linking narrative breathed searing immediacy into the tragic events. Christus had a noble heaviness as sung by bass George Humphreys, while soprano Ida Falk Winland invested her arias with soaring grace. Meanwhile mezzo Emilie Renard’s arias created an extraordinary stillness: her sound was exquisitely poised, her vocal line clean and pure. And at those moments when she was accompanied by flutes and oboes, we entered a magic which modern instruments could never come near.

Thanks to Cummings’s furious momentum, the symmetrical contours of this great edifice came splendidly clear, and its alternations of chaos, rage, and celestial calm were presented to greater effect than is ever possible in a concert performance.