First Night: Flying with Bach's spirit

St Matthew Passion The Barbican London
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The Independent Online
IF AUDIENCE reaction is anything to go by, the first half of last night's St Matthew Passion at the Barbican was only a qualified success. It is a pity, because the turn-out would have put even the most generous church congregation to shame.

But then if the spiritual life is destined to carry through to the next millennium, then J S Bach is as likely as anything to take it there. Nicholas Kraemer conducted the City of London Sinfonia in a performance that pressed ahead right from the start. And what an opening chorus it is. "See him" sing the men and women on the left; "who?" reply their opposite numbers on the right. The answer: the bridegroom Christ. It's an ecstatic musical flight that responds well to "period" instruments that Bach himself would have used - but the sinfonia use heavier-toned, modern instruments and the effect seemed rather breathless. Any performance of St Matthew Passion relies on the skill of the tenor who sings the Evangelist and Mark Padmore excelled with his trumpeting delivery and clear diction.

Jeremy Ovenden, who undertook the tenor arias, was almost as impressive, and his vivid stage presence was an extra bonus for his second aria. He was joined by a buoyant Viola De Gamba.

Matthew Hargreaves cut a commanding if occasionally rather grey-voiced Jesus, and the bass arias were sonorously sung by Andrew Foster. Of the two sopranos, Mary Nelson left a marginally stronger impression than mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, though her first aria "Jesus, saviour, I am thine" was marginally too fast for comfort. Still, she made amends with a beautiful performance of "For love my saviour now is dying" in part two.

The dramatic core of last night's performance was in the crowd scenes and chorales where the New Company chamber choir sang with force and conviction.

The second half was more successful. Speeds were more relaxed, and the lyrical drift of Bach's slower music had more time to breathe, but there was no let-up in intensity. The moment when Jesus sings: "My God, My God why has thou forsaken me" was beautifully prepared by Padmore.

The closing chorus more than deserved a rapturous response. Last night's performance was not without the odd distraction - a spot of chatting here or a falling chair there - but nothing serious enough to dull the effect of Western music's mightiest masterpiece.