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S & H Concert Review

Bach, ‘St. Matthew Passion’ London Bach Festival, Steinitz Bach Players, English Voices, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, dir. Timothy Brown. St. John’s Smith Square, Sunday November 3rd (ME)

 

This performance of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first complete performance of the work in Britain in its ‘original’ form, given in March 1952 and directed by Paul Steinitz. That ‘conscious attempt to take a fresh look at a masterpiece’ has of course been followed by so many competing versions of this great work, but few of them can have provided such pure musical pleasure as this one; indeed, of the ‘Matthew Passions’ I have heard over the past few years, this one ranks alongside performances employing far more stellar casts and given in far more commodious surroundings, although of course much is to be gained from hearing Bach in this wonderful setting with its crystalline acoustic and warmly welcoming ambience.

We all make our judgments on such works from different angles; for me, it is the Evangelist and Christus who make or mar this Passion, and on this occasion both parts were cast from strength. Rufus Müller is an exceptionally dramatic, interventionist storyteller, as far distant as can possibly be imagined from the tie-and-tails plus score one usually sees: indeed, there were a few moments where even I balked at his dramatic underscoring of points, most notably the sob in the voice at ‘und weinete bitterlich’ – the music already makes the point here, and there is no need to over-stress it. That being said, his impressively score – free, deeply involved performance, with perfect diction and lucid, sweet – toned phrasing, was an example of really distinguished singing, and I would go so far as to say that his Evangelist is the only one from a currently active singer to be regarded on the same level as that of John Mark Ainsley, and coming from me that’s praise indeed.

The Christus of Thomas Guthrie was clearly heavily influenced by another singer whom I regard highly, Matthias Goerne; indeed, Mr. Guthrie has clearly studied Goerne’s sublime Christus to such an extent that he has not only adopted many of the German baritone’s vocal inflexions, but also a whole cabinet-full of his visual tics – everything, in fact, save the nose-pulling. No matter; Guthrie will find his own way, since he is gifted with a very individual, slightly husky voice, a most engaging stage presence and a real commitment to the music. His ‘Es währe ihm besser… was genuinely threatening, and his ‘Trinket alle daraus’ beautifully mellifluous. As yet, he pulls some of the lines about a bit too much, but his performance was strong on humanity and drama, both qualities which made him an excellent partner to Müller’s Evangelist.

Elsewhere, there was much to enjoy amongst the solo singing, all provided by young members of English Voices; Cecilia Osmond impressed with her lovely bright tone in her aria, and both Robert Rice and Reuben Thomas gave strong performances – the best of the group was probably Giles Underwood, who managed his recitatives characterfully and sang ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ with real feeling. The playing was a constant delight, the strings during ‘Gäb’ mir meinem Jesu wieder’ being especially vibrant, and the oboes producing an ideal liquid tone. Timothy Brown directed with verve and passion, and the English Voices and Choir of Clare College sang with neat attack and eloquent phrasing, never once making anything near what might be called an ‘English Choral’ sound. It was a nice touch, as well as an authentic one, to have the audience join in with some of the chorales, and though I say so myself, we didn’t do at all badly, sections of us actually managing to sing in harmony during ‘Befiehl du deine Wege.’

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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