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S & H Concert Review

Bach, ‘St. Matthew Passion’ (in English) Birmingham Bach Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra, Juniors of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus, Christopher Gillett (Evangelist) Paul Whelan (Jesus), Catherine Bott (soprano) Jean Rigby (mezzo) Mark Le Brocq (tenor) Michael George (bass-bar) conducted by Paul Spicer, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Good Friday, April 9th 2004 (BK)


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

Birmingham 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.

Bill Kenny 


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