Bach, St Matthew Passion Played by Dunedin Consort in Edinburgh

Bach, St Matthew Passion: Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director and organ), St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh, 14.04.2011 (SRT)

Bach’s Matthew Passion is now widely recognised as one of the cornerstones of western civilization (can anyone really think that I exaggerate?) and, as with any work of such cultural significance, its history of performance has become almost as important as the work itself.  In recent years the Dunedin Consort have been one of the key drivers in reassessing “period” performances of Bach.  Their (mostly) one-to-a-part style has moved from being on the fringes of accepted performance practice to being right at its centre: just look at the enthusiastic reviews of their recordings o of Messiah and the B Minor Mass to see what I mean.

Butt is a scholar but more importantly he is also a performing musician and his approach, while observing academic rigour, is as far from “hair shirt” Bach as you can imagine: his is a reading of the Passion that ebbs and flows with the drama of the piece.  His pacing is on the lively side which helps the crowd choruses of the second part to buzz with energy, but he is happy to broaden out for the great opening chorus or for the reflective arias that surround the scene of the crucifixion itself.  The hair-raising fugue in the betrayal scene, Sind Blitze, sind Donner, crackled with tension and precision, and little touches like the diminuendo before the final return of Wir setzen uns added colour, light and life to an outstanding performance.

I used to be very sceptical of the one-to-a-part approach, and I admit that I still think it undersells the scale of the opening chorus, but I grew to love it as the performance progressed and, by the final sarabande, it felt just right.  What the choruses lose in mass they gain in transparency and fluency, and Bach’s choral writing comes up like a painting having undergone restoration.  It helps that Butt’s vocal team are so outstandingly assured at every turn.  Soloists all sang in the chorales and choruses too, adding to the sense of a communal enterprise.  In such an atmosphere it seems invidious to single out any for special mention, but Derek Welton’s Christ was particularly outstanding, as was his singing of the two final bass arias in Part Two: time stood still for Komm, süβes Kreuz.  Among the “lesser” soloists I also particularly enjoyed Thomas Hobbs’ tenor whose only solo, the Part Two Geduld!, was very beautiful and almost made me wish he had been given the Evangelist’s part.

Instrumental playing from the rest of the consort was marvellous and Butt succeeds in getting a satisfyingly juicy sound from his strings.  On the whole, though, this was a performance that showed not just outstanding musical and technical skill but also tapped into the worshipful, meditative element that would have been so close to Bach’s own heart.  A profoundly satisfying evening from one of Scotland’s greatest cultural ambassadors

Simon Thompson