SHERBORNE Chamber Choir joined forces with the Sherborne Young Singers, the Sherborne Baroque Players and six fine soloists to perform what is undoubtedly one of J.S. Bach’s greatest works, the St. Matthew Passion.
First performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig almost three hundred years ago, its portrayal of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion contains some of Bach’s most powerful music. Like other Baroque passions, his setting presents the biblical text in a relatively simple way, primarily using recitative, whilst the various arias and their associated recitatives are settings of specially written poetic texts, in this case by Picander, the pen name of Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici.
These comment on the various events within the story in a more meditative, lyrical manner. Picander also wrote the libretto for the wonderful choral movements that open and close the two halves of the Passion.
My own Novello edition of the score, however, informs me that Picander was not entrusted with the choice of words for the chorales, and that Bach himself selected verses well-known and popular with Lutheran congregations.
Centre stage was the Sherborne Chamber Choir whose rich, controlled singing, in the original German, gripped us from the outset. Attention to diction and phrasing were ever apparent and the chorales in particular came across with a directness that was quite uplifting. The short choral interjections such as Barabbam (Barabbas) and Lass ihn kreuzigen (Let Him be crucified) were highly dramatic, while the four extended choruses enabled them to have a good sing – something that they evidently enjoyed.
As is customary, individual members of the choir took on a number of the smaller roles, giving interest and variety to the overall tonal colour, whilst in Part One, they were joined by the Sherborne Young Singers, an all-girls choir, who added a youthful freshness to the timbre of the opening and closing choruses. What a wonderful experience it must have been too, my only regret was that we did not hear more of them.
As the Evangelist, Nicholas Hawker was nothing short of sublime. A friend of mine in the audience likened his voice to velvet or to a warm blanket and I could not agree more. Treating every phrase, every note even, as though it were a precious stone, his re-telling of the familiar crucifixion story was both tender and thrilling. Und er antwortete ihm nicht auf ein Wort he sings in Part Two. (And He answered him not a word.) Rarely have I heard recitative so beautifully sung – absolute perfection.
In the role of Christus, Robert Evans’s compelling baritone voice was suitably authoritative, the halo of expressive string accompaniment, as the very informative programme notes describes it, giving his recitatives added poignancy and power. Nowhere was this more evident than in Der mit der Hand mit mir in die Schussel tauchet (He who dips his hand in the dish with me).
Julie Cooper’s soaring soprano voice was, likewise, deeply affecting. Her heartfelt Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (For love will my Saviour die) was one of the many highlights of the evening. Her earlier duet So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (Thus my Jesus is now taken) with alto soloist Tim Carleston was equally moving, the two voices seeming to weave effortlessly in and out of each other.
Although the absolute purity of Carleston’s voice resulted in me actually losing it in the orchestral texture from time to time, the effect was often quite magical. The famous aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, my God) is a case in point, the beautiful violin obbligato and the singer’s long melismatic vocal lines merged and separated to wonderful effect.
Although the tenor has rather less to sing than some of the others, his recitatives and arias are among the most dramatic numbers in the entire work and soloist Gareth Treseder certainly made the most of them. His sense of agitation in the Part One recitative O Schmerz! (Oh pain!) and in the aria that followed contrasted beautifully with the lovely expansive lines of the choral writing while his Schimpf und Spott (mockery and abuse) in Part Two was wonderfully intense. Finally, whether in the role of Pilate or in one of the reflective arias, bass soloist Craig Bissex, with his fine, rich voice, did full justice to Bach’s score. I particularly liked his Komm, susses Kreuz (Come, sweet cross) with its lovely cello and organ accompaniment.
The Sherborne Baroque Players, led by Alison Bury, accompanied sensitively and with sparkling precision. There were some magical moments here too: the delicate flute obbligato in Du lieber Heiland du (My master and my Lord) for example, or the trio of oboes and bassoon in Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (I will give my heart to thee) to highlight but two.
Last night’s concert was an intensely moving occasion and under the very capable baton of Paul Ellis, Director of Music at Sherborne Abbey, Bach’s magnificent music held our undivided attention for around three hours. I am sure I am not alone in feeling very privileged to have been there.