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St Matthew Passion

April 2006
Symphony Hall, Birmingham

"...more than a mere performance..."

Birmingham Bach Choir's annual Good Friday presentation of the St Matthew Passion at Symphony Hall has developed over the years into something more than a mere performance. It is not too fanciful to suggest that everyone present comes away with feeling part of a shared sacrament.

Even non-believers can respond to this depiction of the sufferings of such a good man, and mine weren't the only eyes with tears. Credit for this sense of oneness lies in the musical results Paul Spicer, such a musicianly and self-effacing conductor, draws from his forces, achieving in persuasive and controlled manner all the unrelenting emotionalism of Bach's vast score. Structure and narrative development were well-paced on Friday, though the pauses between numbers were perhaps a little too long (the great final chorus, for example, should have flowed in naturally from the soloists' last sorrowing contribution).

Bach's brilliant exploitation of a double chorus has his choristers acting variously as commentators, characters and reflectors, and the BBC sang with remarkable projection and clarity - though the odd discomfort with Neil Jenkins' sometimes uncongenial translation (the almost oikish repetitions of 'What?' in the grinding opening chorus) could be detected. I did, though, miss the childlike purity of trebles in the ripieno line.

Paul Whelan was totally moving as an awesome Christus, quiet optimism giving way to human despair, and Christopher Gillett was the intelligent, vivid Evangelist. Other soloists made fine contributions, and the English Chamber Orchestra played with colour and neatness during this testing marathon which brings us all through some kind of ordeal.

Birmingham Post
March 2006

St Matthew Passion
Photo © Mary Walker