‘A Sense of Participation in Something Greater’: Dunedin Consort’s Richly-Textured St Matthew Passion

15/04/2017

Bach, St Matthew Passion: Soloists, Dunedin Consort / Kristian Bezuidenhout (director, organ & harpsichord), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 14.4.2017. (SRT)

Rachel Redmond, Miriam Allan, Jessica Conway (sopranos)

Emile Renard, Rory McCleery (altos)

Hugo Hymas, David Lee (tenors)

Robert Davies, Jimmy Holliday (bass)

For all my lifetime of both churchgoing and concert-going, this is the first time I’ve ever heard the St Matthew Passion on Good Friday. I have to say that there’s something very special about the experience, and that’s not just because I myself have a faith. Even if you have little sympathy for the work’s intended spirituality, there is an inescapable “rightness” about hearing it on the day for which it was written, not least because it puts you in line with all the countless thousands of audiences and congregations who have done the same thing over two-and-a-half centuries, and there is a sense of participation in something greater even if you’re not actually joining in for the chorales. Noticing the sky darken outside as the story progresses also puts you in the line of the changing seasons and the Easter story’s tale of the temporary triumph of darkness, before light explodes into victory on Easter Sunday morning.

The Dunedin Consort are experts in this territory, famous for their one-to-a-part approach. Even though the singers brought great virtuosity to their roles, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be won over to this technique when it comes to the opening chorus, which lacks power and scale when done like this. Bigger choruses bring a much greater sense of sweep to this music, and they also correct the balance of singers to instrumentalists. This is the only point in the work when four singers have to make themselves heard for an extended period against the combined forces of both the orchestras, despite the occasional interventions of the second chorus and the cantus firmus, and they are too easily swamped in this set-up. The soprano in ripieno was almost inaudible for most of the time, too, which didn’t help, but that’s unavoidable when the set-up is like this.

Once that’s done, though, the gains keep coming, through the immediacy of the chorales and the vigorous counterpoint of the crowd scenes. All eight singers had at least one aria, and there was not a weak link. I especially enjoyed the rich, textured alto of Emilie Renard and the bright sopranos of both Rachel Redmond and Miriam Allen, as well as the marvellous bass arias from Jimmy Holliday. Robert Davies also made a wonderfully warm, humane Christ, but the pick of them was the sensational Evangelist of Hugo Hymas, a late stand-in, who was uniquely expressive and utterly alive to every sensitivity of the text.

The Dunedin musicians, too, are a company of virtuosi, making a uniquely exciting sound when playing together. The obbligati of the various arias created a kaleidoscope of different sound worlds, crowned especially by the brilliant cello and gamba of Jonathan Manson, and I loved the fruity pair of oboes da caccia, as well as the limpid flute of Katy Bircher.

Normally these musicians play for their director, John Butt, but tonight we had Kristian Bezuidenhout as a guest, who directed from the continuo. Bezuidenhout is more widely known as a fortepianist, and for much of the first half I got the impression that the music was unfolding in spite of, not because of him. However, he crafted the sound more sensitively as the performance went on, and he fairly took the music by the scruff of the neck at the climax of Part One, the great “Sind blitze, sind donner” chorus at the moment of Jesus’ arrest. After that he showed himself a gifted collaborator and a listening leader who could draw the best from his players.

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, what Bach would think if he knew that all these years later people would be paying to hear his masterwork as a piece of art rather than as an aid to worship. Our Queen’s Hall audience might not be so far from the wealthy burghers of Leipzig who paid pew rents and probably saw church as a social occasion, but nevertheless the Matthew Passion remains one of the greatest devotional aids in the history of art, written by a devout Christian to enrich and improve his fellow church-goers. It’s a testament to the work’s greatness that you don’t need a faith of your own to appreciate and admire it.

Simon Thompson

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