Birmingham is twinned with Leipzig where the St. Matthew Passion was first heard on
Good Friday in 1729. For some years now Symphony Hall has commemorated
the connection with its own Good Friday St Matthew, given this year,
as in 2003, by the Birmingham Bach Choir and the ECO conducted by
the choir’s director Paul Spicer. The tradition is evidently much
appreciated locally for the performance was sold-out.
The Birmingham Bach Choir (the other BBC as it is
sometimes called) is a large group consisting of 70 – 80 singers,
some of whom are amateurs. Over the past fourteen years, Paul Spicer’s
expertise as a choral conductor / trainer has helped them develop
a high degree of technical skill so that they work confidently nowadays
as equal partners with first rank soloists and orchestras. Although
the group specialises in the baroque repertoire, it also commissions
new works that include pieces by Paul Spicer himself, by John Joubert
and by the Minnesota Orchestra’s New Music Director, Aaron Jay Kernis.
They are a fine choir by any standards and it is obvious that they
are keenly respectful of Mr. Spicer’s careful and clear direction.
The drama of this great work was allowed full expression in this performance
by all involved, but never at the expense of reverence for its devotional
and penitential elements. Christopher Gillett was a ringing and tuneful
Evangelist with not a note out of place and Paul Whelan was a sonorous
Jesus with an abundance of true bass tone. Of the other principals,
Michael George, despite recovering from a cold, showed very little
sign of strain in any of his characterisations and in No. 75 ‘Make
thee clean from sin, my heart’ was particularly melodic and indeed
particularly prayerful. Catherine Bott was perhaps stronger at the
lower end of her voice, but was obviously in great command of her
music while Jean Rigby’s powerful mezzo, and Mark Le Brocq’s rock
- steady tenor made easy work of fitting the sometimes tortuous English
underlay to Bach’s original pointing. Singing the St Matthew in English
is always a compromise of course, but intelligibility to the audience
is surely justified on Good Friday.
Paul Spicer drew extremely well-crafted and sensitive contributions
from his own choir, from the ECO and from the Ripieno provided by
the Juniors of the City of
Symphony Youth Chorus. The ECO played with all of its customary virtuosity and the Birmingham
Bach Choir matched their playing with fine levels of musicianship.
Together they will give the Christmas Oratorio in its entirety (arguably
a greater challenge than the Bach Passions) at Symphony Hall on December
18th when once again they will be under Paul Spicer’s direction. On
the strength of this St. Matthew, it should be a memorable experience.