Another Distinguished St Matthew Passion from Ex Cathedra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, St Matthew Passion: Soloists, Choir, Baroque Orchestra and Academy of Vocal Music, all of Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 3.4.2015. (GR)

Evangelist & Tenor I – Jeremy Budd
Jesus & Bass I – Greg Skidmore
Pilate – James Geidt
Soprano I – Katie Trethewey
Soprano II – Natalie Clifton-Griffith
Alto I – Matthew Venner
Alto II – Martha McLorinan
Tenor II – Ben Thapa
Bass II – Callam Thorpe

Among the distinguished recordings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion is that from Ex Cathedra with Jeffrey Skidmore their founder/director, recorded live in the Birmingham Symphony Hall on Good Friday Apr 10th 2009 (Review). This occasion was the first using the English translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell, both stalwarts of the Birmingham Bach Choir. Their libretto attracted much praise, including that from Bach Scholar John Butt, who thought it addressed the challenges of the iconic work, whilst preserving the sense of its text, communicating the gospel to modern audiences and reflecting the nuances of Bach’s score. This performance six years later included several of the artists on the CD and also coincided with the Friday of Holy Week. It was well received by a packed house. Skidmore had again arranged his choir and baroque instrumentalists into two distinct areas with the solo voices in prominent positions within the choir (for the majority of the solo parts) remaining faithful to the concept of Bach. Indeed, the conversations between the two orchestras and the two choirs, adroitly positioned on opposite wings of the wide Symphony Hall stage, yet still providing an intimate ensemble, was one outstanding feature of the afternoon. In his programme notes Skidmore lists the broad range of emotions BWV 244 generates; and while this highly dramatic work did not attempt to approach the 2007 operatic take of Katie Mitchell at Glyndebourne (why should it anyway?) this was an emotionally charged performance by any stretch, Above all I experienced compassion, reflection and optimism.

Bach’s epistle begins two days before the Passover and ends with the sealing of the tomb. The opening combined chorus Come, you daughters set the mood; the repeated commands of See Him echoing across the auditorium with the nine members of the Ex Cathedra Academy of Vocal Music providing the Soprano in Ripieno spelt out that this was not a concert, but a celebration to grace the Christian festival of Easter. The success of the St Matthew Passion often depends on the narrative skills of the Evangelist. Jeremy Budd was soon in action, filling the demanding role effortlessly, with exceptional diction and a bright even tone; and events were seamlessly united throughout by his vocal links. The highly acclaimed countertenor Matthew Venner demonstrated his delicate tone and perfect phrasing in the recitative My Master and My Lord; as the woman from Bethany who anointed Jesus, his character’s heartache became ours with a moving Grief for Sin aria, beautifully balanced by the baroque flutes of Rachel Latham and Rachel Helliwell, the cello of Andrew Skidmore and organ of Philip Scriven.

As attention switched to the second orchestra and chorus, ex-Birmingham Conservatoire student Natalie Clifton-Griffith issued her warning regarding events to come, Break in grief, O loving heart, The light touch of the strings led by Bojan Čičić was a sublime compliment to her shimmering delivery. The preparations for the Jewish Festival of Unleavened Bread were suitably subdued, with Greg Skidmore an impressive Jesus delivering the simple fayre of the ‘Last Supper’ – his never been born quite chilling. But the recitative of Katie Trethewey (another Birmingham graduate, but from the Edgbaston campus) changed the mood, highlighted by the emphasis Fisher and Russell place on the precious gift. Trethewey’s subsequent aria Jesu, Saviour, I am yours was pledged with sincerity, her bright soprano providing a vivid contrast against the pulsating bassoon of Mike Brain. Having heard further prophecies from the Mount of Olives sermon, the combined choirs gave us the first taste of the ‘O Sacred Head’ hymn melody that unifies the piece, filling the auditorium with Bach’s glorious tune and harmony. Numbers 19 & 20 have always been a highlight of Part I for me with its bittersweet blend of darkness and salvation; having removed his narrator’s hat, Budd, together with the second orchestra and choir, provided an emotive journey from grief to joy. This message of hope was reinforced by the solid and forceful delivery of bass Callum Thorpe vowing Never will I choose to leave him. After the betrayal and taking of Jesus, the actions of the high priests were tearfully observed by Trethewey and Venner in the heartfelt duet My Saviour, Jesus, now is taken – full of the beautiful complexities to which Bach could aspire. The drama of Christ’s Passion continued with the crowd’s exclamations of Loose Him, a sense of theatre confirmed in the subsequent energetic chorus Have lightnings and thunders forgotten their fury. After one of the aggressors lost an ear, Greg Skidmore was at his most authoritative, calming the situation with his recitative. Part I closed with a reflective O World, your sinful ways lament.

Venner’s prolonged and ecstatic Ah! got Part II off to a wondrous start, poignantly grieving his/her Saviour’s loss and likening it to a Lamb in Tiger’s clutches (one piece of text thankfully retained by Fisher/Russell from the earlier Novello edition). After the evidence of the two false witnesses, there was some delightful ornamentation and buoyant lyricism from Ben Thapa in his recitative My Lord stays silent and his aria Endure through lies, aided by the rhythmic accompaniment of Imogen Set-Smith on cello and Joe Waggott at the second organ. After the high priests found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, Budd vividly described Peter’s denial. The solo violin of Čičić and Scriven’s measured tones provided the perfect complement to Venner’s Have mercy, Lord, a five-star moment that seemed all too brief. Not to be outdone Ex Cathedra leader Rodolfo Richter (Orchestra I) had his own sublime solo, accompanying Callum Thorpe’s Give, O give me back my Saviour, another excellent number. When asked whom Pilate should release, the response from both choruses was a vehement Barabbas. Trethewey’s case for the defence was sympathetically put, but despite the supportive backing of the woodwind, Pilate washed his hands of it all. Second alto Martha McLorinan impressed me with her If my weeping and wailing be unavailing, illustrating the strength in depth within Ex Cathedra. Two more verses of O sacred head followed (Fisher/Russell’s version being O bleeding head, so wounded) the second unaccompanied one idyllic. As the events of Golgotha unfolded, the hope of resurrection percolated the auditorium during the final combined chorus In tears of Grief; it sealed an uplifting experience.

Jeffrey Skidmore founded Ex Cathedra in 1969 and their Good Friday fixture performances show few signs of losing their appeal. Conductors are known for their longevity, so let’s hope Skidmore and his creation can celebrate a fiftieth anniversary in 2019 – and beyond. How about some recognition of this truly Birmingham phenomenon among the celebrities honoured on the pavements of Broad Street – the ‘Birmingham Walk of Stars’?

Geoff Read


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