Classical: St Matthew Passion; Barbican Centre, London

Anthony Payne
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:44

Two translations enabled 19th-century British choirs to adopt Bach's St Matthew Passion as a pillar of their repertory. Both are already over a hundred years old, yet they have remained the basis for all subsequent singing translations, and what with the advance in knowledge of the performing practices of Bach's time, there has clearly been a need in recent years to review the situation. That is, if, like tenor and noted Evangelist Neil Jenkins, you feel strongly that the search for authenticity need not bind performers to using the original German text.

In a note for the first London airing of his new translation of that text, which was sung by the Goldsmiths Choral Union and assorted soloists at the Barbican on Friday last, Jenkins makes the point that, since for many people performances of the work are acts of worship, it makes sense to do it in the vernacular. To this it could be added that for the general listener the narrative progress of the work is a vital constituent of the musical and dramatic structure: "To be able to respond immediately to each verbal point is even more important than in operatic performances where staging and acting help the listener."

Jenkins's main aims were to restore as many of Bach's original rhythms as possible, respecting stresses and restoring rhyming schemes. But there has been no wilful updating, and notable 19th-century successes have been retained. It would be difficult to imagine anything grander than Sir Henry Baker's "O sacred head surrounded" which was introduced into the Elgar-Atkins edition of the work in 1911.

As for the performance under the direction of Brian Wright, it was a worthy one and gathered weight and impulse as it unfolded. At the outset a certain intensity was missing, even if it was the intensity of calm, and the mighty opening chorus, with its suggestion of vast crowds calling to each other and lamenting while chorale statements provide a monumental architecture, lacked power. Later the chorus focused their music with greater point, dramatising the different groups of people energetically, and drawing us to the heart of Bach's vision with their sturdy treatment of the chorale settings.

The solo singing was less satisfactory, causing tension to drop at a number of vitally contemplative moments, but fortunately Jenkins himself was present to bring great authority and variety to the role of Evangelist narrator. His was indeed a splendid contribution to the interpretation, pacing the flow of events with mastery and sustaining emotional truth and technical command throughout.

Touching, too, were the alto recitatives and arias of Margaret Macdonald, rather light voiced but imaginative and musical in her execution. The Wren Baroque Orchestra supported ably, and there was notable obbligato playing, not least in Mark Levy's fine command of the tortuous gamba solos.


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