MUSIC / A new testament: Edward Seckerson on Jonathan Miller's dramatisation of Bach's St Matthew Passion

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The Independent Culture
A crucifixion on Sloane Street? Fears that Jonathan Miller might be poised to perpetrate St Matthew Passion - the Opera had been laid to rest well in advance. His much- vaunted 'dramatisation' according to Bach was without controversy or cheap sensation: simple, discreet, even reverential. Those of us who came to Holy Trinity to bear witness, to share in the experience - sceptics, believers, agnostics, atheists, or just plain music-lovers - will surely in some way have been touched by it.

We made our pilgrimage unceremoniously to the heart of the church. Steeply-tiered seating surrounded a makeshift arena. A group of casually dressed youngsters were gathered in a circle: some sat, some stood, some carried musical instruments. A single table bore wine, bread, and an apple. At the table sat a young man in jeans and a checked shirt. He had a story to tell us. I believe they once called him an Evangelist.

Miller's objectives here were modest: to make of us a small community, to draw us into the mysterious ritual, to reawaken in us something of this Passion's passion, invite us to share its deep and abiding compassion. It worked. The atmosphere of the piece and venue took hold - outside, the car alarms and police sirens were audible but oddly remote. Miller simply animated and illuminated the narrative, brought it off the page and out of the pulpit, closer to us. His Evangelist, the excellent Rufus Muller, drifted informally through the 'action', his delivery understated, conversational, except in those moments of high drama where he might assume the voice and manner of, say, Christ's persecuters. Otherwise he remained our confidant, a spiritual presence, 'outside' his narrative except perhaps to place a consoling hand on the shoulder of Richard Jackson's Christus in a moment of need.

It was this contact, this give and take, between characters - and, in turn, us - that contributed so much to the frisson of the occasion: to have, for instance, Jesus look Peter straight in the eye and predict his denial. The blocking had a painterly feel. A young, vital, physical chorus sang and moved with engaging spontaneity both as individuals and as one. And most telling of all, the arias assumed a new-found intimacy as characters moved towards obbligato accompanying instruments - their instrumental alter egos - properly relating to them as an emotional extension of their own voices. One such highlight was James Bowman's ever-sumptuous alto in moving alliance with solo violin over the still, weeping form of Peter. Or Nancy Argenta's honest, unvarnished soprano with entwining oboe and flute so eloquently speaking up for the condemned Christ in Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.

Paul Goodwin was the ardent musical motivator, strong on fleshy downbeats, keen of rhythm, fluent, generally urgent, yet sure to open expansively to the final appearance of the great chorale ritornello, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Impulsive tempi may or may not have contributed to shortfalls in clarity and moments of smudged counterpoint in this lively acoustic; depending upon which direction they faced, voices were apt to come and go. But the spirit did not. As the final chorus fulfilled its heartening promise of illumination, we were no longer spectators but participants.

Also tonight, tomorrow 7pm Holy Trinity Church, Sloane St, London SW1 (071-730 1745)

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