Leipzig's venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra arrived at London's Barbican Centre with so much more than Bach's St Matthew Passion. They brought with them history, tradition and Bach's very own choir from St Thomas's Church, where his passion first startled Leipzig's faithful on Good Friday 1727.
Connections like that, and the responsibility to honour them, clearly weighed heavily on conductor Riccardo Chailly. The seriousness of the preparation, the rightness of the style, and a sense of awe in the service of this great work illuminated every page.
First to startle was the double-chorus – the St Thomas's Boys Choir and Tolz Boys Choir – whose sensational presence, power and precision made something entirely new of the opening chorale-fantasia. The open-throated clarity of this singing, its subtlety and nuance, is something I've rarely heard equalled. The reflective chorales carried a poise and wisdom that totally belied the young faces before us. The final incarnation of the famous so-called "Passion" chorale, richly embellished at the moment of Christ's death, was more perfect and more affecting than anything I've heard in a long time.
The challenge of the St Matthew lies in the extreme concision of the myriad moments that make up its considerable whole. They are like snapshots of the scriptures, fleeting and forceful, flashes of instrumental or vocal colour. Chailly and soloists, vocal and instrumental, knew how to point and savour them, so that the moment of the first communion, for instance, drew from the Evangelist (Johannes Chum, quirky but compelling) the most sublime phrase he sang all evening to the words: "Take, eat; this is my body."
The arias are the emotional climacterics of the piece, and all Chailly's soloists, not least the two women, alto Marie-Claude Chappuis and the late replacement soprano, Sybella Rubens, understood well how the words and all they communicate must take precedence; no vocal vanity here. Even Thomas Quasthoff joined in the chorales to warm up for his arias.
So, an extraordinary performance. When the single string chord symbolising the moment Christ is finally laid to rest is so quiet as to evoke the silence of perfect peace, you know you are in the presence of real artistry.