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J. S. Bach St. Matthew Passion: Soloists, St George’s Singers and Manchester Camerata, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 19.3. 2006 (RJF)


The St. George’s Singers were founded in 1956 and take their name from the founding church in Poynton, a large village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester. The choir rehearse in the same church each Tuesday under the direction of Stephen Williams, their Musical Director who took over eight years ago and by 1958 they had grown sufficiently to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion. They tour every year with recent destinations including Krakow, Helsinki and Tallin.

In the best tradition of North of England amateur choirs the members, now numbering around one hundred and twenty, have to raise the money for their tours and for the likes of the Sunday night concert under review. The result of that commitment and effort is that the choir now stands alongside the Hallé Choir as the North West’s leading ensemble. However, whereas the Hallé performs with its orchestra, who fund the soloists, St George’s has to provide both for its major performances. It is a measure of their reputation that in November 2004 the soloists in Mendelssohn’s Elijah were Sir Willard White, Mark Padmore, Sarah Fulgoni and Mary Plazas. Since it was Mendelssohn who did so much to revive Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (composed during Bach’s tenure as Kantor in Leipzig where he wrote the work for double choir and presented it on Good Friday 1727 in the Thomaskirche) it was good to see the Bridgewater Hall full once again for the significantly harder work.

The St. Matthew Passion is scored for two choirs and two orchestras. At the original performances, lofts on opposite sides of the church allowed the choristers to face each other. This was not attempted in the Bridgewater Hall, the one hundred and ten choir sat in rows, men behind the women and not quite matching them in number. The Evangelist, sung by the renowned specialist James Gilchrist was seated behind the orchestra, next to the first keyboard. Christ, sung by Christopher Purves, sat at the front next to the conductor’s podium. The other soloists walked from a side position to make their contributions before returning to their seats. The only drawback of this arrangement was the sound of shoes of the walking soloists.

The work is long at over two and a half hours and in the original performances in the Lutherian Church, the two halves would have been divided by a sermon. Here the audience had a comfort break, an appropriate intermission separating the distinctly different moods of the work's two halves. In Part One the mood is softer with the orchestra having melody and solo items to feast on. Part Two, describing the trial and crucifixion of Christ, is much more dramatic and the dramatic impact of the music was enhanced by the lowering of the lights at Jesus’ point of death in this performnce.

As Christus, Christopher Purves, who also sings a fair amount of opera, took a little time to find his legato but once having done so, he sang with musicality and a wide range of expression. Of particular note was his soft singing in Go to such a man in the city. As the Evangelist, James Gilchrist carries the greatest vocal burden and his clarity, again after a little settling, was marked by vocal dynamism and range going to a heady top note at the end of And immediately the cock crew. Joanne Lunn sang the soprano part: the high tessitura does not allow for ideal clarity of words nor does a vibrato-less voice lend for expression. None the less, tall and imposing, she was able to inflect her words with meaning. The same was true of Alexandra Gibson, nominally a contralto but with a timbre somewhat higher. The two ladies sang in perfect unison in Behold my saviour now is taken as they alternated with the chorus. Andrew Foster-Williams with his lean bass was distinguished in The saviour, low before His Father bending, his timbre being distinctly different from the appropriately sonorous and steady bass tone of Dean Robinson as Pilate. This essential difference of timbre in the same vocal register was also to be heard in the young tenor Robert Murray's singing which contrasted nicely with James Gilchrist's Evangelist. Murray is a Covent Garden Young Artist who sings with elegant phrasing and he should have a good future in both fields of opera and oratorio. The other solo parts in this performance were adequately taken by members of the choir.


Vital though the quality of the soloists may be, it is the quality of the choir's contribution that makes, or otherwise, a  performance of this particular rendering of the Passion story. I am particularly pleased to report that the standards I admired so much in the performance of Elijah were fully maintained. The sonority of the singing was impressive as was the clarity of diction. Every word was clearly enunciated and could be followed without the aid of the programme print. Most important though, was the groups's ability to convey the accuracy of Bach’s writing in Part Two where Bach's demands for dramatic inflection and bite are quickly followed by contrasting soft singing and fine legato. Such performing quality comes only as a consequence of proper preparation and plenty of rehearsal under Stephen Williams' leadership.His conducting was well paced and drew excellent playing from the Manchester Camerata and the various orchestra soloists in their individual contributions.


There are few opportunities to hear this seminal work and Manchester was privileged to hear such a fine rendering. All concerned can be justifiably proud of the achievement and I was particularly pleased to see Mancunians giving the work and the St, George’s Singers their full support at the box office.

Robert J Farr




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