The Bach Choir | Royal Festival Hall, London

Click to follow

Sunday, London Marathon day, was also the date for the second of The Bach Choir's two performances of the "St Matthew Passion", sung in English and programmed for the run-up to Easter. Runners on the northern shore could be seen by concert-goers returning, after an ample lunch-break, for the second half.

Apart from Parsifal, another piece in which art and the sacred reflexively subsume each other to heavenly length, the "St Matthew Passion" is about as long as music with God in it gets for the average listener. Like Wagner's piece, it can also prove a marathon, what with all the trappings of pious reverence that traditionally come attached. That this account, though strenuous, was less a spiritual cross-country than a meaningful journey, was in large measure thanks to the energetic direction of David Hill, The Bach Choir's Musical Director.

True, no applause was permitted during the performance, rather dampening proceedings. None the less, Hill's general choice of upbeat tempi, while preserving due solemnity in the music, also kept it sprightly and dance-like. In the chorales, especially, a lightness of touch and attention to detail removed them from Beecham's deadly genre of Protestant counterpoint. Instead, they sounded as if imagined by Schumann: seamless yet controlled, each one moving forward in a fascinating play of dynamic contrasts.

Individual artists personalised their respective recitatives and arias according to vocal timbres that also brought colour to the score overall. As Evangelist, Christopher Gillett's somewhat reedy tenor proved to be a dramatic asset, rising to hysterical tones when narrating the approach of "Judas in the Garden". A weighty Christus, bass, Matthew Best, matched bass-baritone, Michael George, as Pilate, Peter and High Priest.

With dignity, tenor Timothy Robinson took the smaller roles such as Testes, while contralto Catherine Wyn-Rogers memorably delivered the aria, "Erbarme dich, mein Gott", in English. Pilate's Wife, a woman whose dreams, like those of Caesar's wife, proved beyond suspicion, was ably sung by soprano Judith Howarth.

A distinguished team assisted Hill with the instrumental music: Adrian Partington's organ continuo faultlessly partnered the singers; in the tenor's aria, "Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen", one wished it even greater prominence. Mark Levy's gamba playing offered not only a sound foundation to the ensemble, but also a fine solo in the bass aria, "Komm, süsses Kreuz".

The English translation of Neil Jenkins's new edition certainly sounds more idiomatic than that of previous versions. For punning, however, "Jesus held his peace" seems likely to enter the list of famous howlers already culled from the pages of libretto texts in English.

Comments