Sir John Eliot Gardiner Leads a Tremendous Performance of the St Matthew Passion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, St Matthew Passion: Mark Padmore (Evangelist); Stephan Loges (Christus); Soloists; Trinity Boys’ Choir; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Barbican Hall, London, 26.3.2016. (CC)

Back in 2014, Mark Padmore was the Evangelist for Sir Simon Rattle’s staging of the St Matthew Passion at the Proms (see review).  Another Knight of the Realm headed this particular Passion, and was quite sure, in his supplied programme note (excerpted from his recent book Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach) that  such stage trickery is redundant: Gardiner writes, “Give me a bare stage (not a picture frame) peopled with choristers freed from their scores and soloists interacting with the obbligato players, and, I believe, the audience’s imagination can fill it with images far more vivid than any scene painter or stage director can provide”. Gardiner’s performance was remarkable in his sheer grasp of Bach’s huge musical canvas, from the most dramatic moments to the sorrow it painted in the accompaniment to Jonathan Sells’ aria, “Mache dich, Mein Herze, rein”

A lot of thought had gone into presentation, both in placement of soloists (with both the Evangelist and Christ joining the chorus for the concluding choruses of each part) and the fact that the chorus sang from memory. It was surprising then that there was one somewhat off-putting facet: the translation used in the surtitles was different from that offered in the programme, sometimes only marginally, sometimes more so. Such a disjunction wrests the listener from Bach’s ongoing meditation on the Jesus story.

These are but small quibbles in the context of such a marvellous performance, though. It is clear Gardiner knows and lives every tiny bit of this huge score, delineating complex choral passages as easily as he provided the most sensitive support for arias. As the Evangelist, Mark Padmore sang beautifully, all the while sounding unearthly wise. Concerned narrator might be an apt description of his stance; his voice, too, seems infinitely supple, and all recitatives were so wonderfully shaped; his top range positively glistened. His Christus was Stephan Loges, who despite having the range was not quite in the same league, a touch bland – dare I say anonymous? – in comparison.

Soprano Hannah Morrison’s bright, pure voice illumined each and every one of her arias; from “Blute nur”, it was clear that here is a top-rank soloist, and in Part II’s “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben”, her voice perfectly matched the flute obbligato. Alto Eleanor Minney was her musical equal, her “Erbarme dich” beautifully tender.

Countertenor Reginald Mobley was a terrific soloist, his “Du lieber Heiland du …Buss’ und Reu’” from Part I splendidly pure, his voice the perfect match for the obbligato pairing of two flutes. In Part II, he had all the vocal strength for “Ach, Golgotha, unsel’ges Golgotha” and superb trills in the ensuing “Sehet! Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand”. As Judas, Jonathan Sells excelled, while Alex Ashworth was a very strong Peter. A true bass, Nicolas Mogg’s “Der Heiland fällt … Gerne will ich mich bequemen” was beautifully smooth, his slurs expertly managed. If alto Clare Wilkinson was on occasion a tad weak, her contributions were nonetheless heartfelt; Alex Riches as the High Priest, was perhaps better at showing anger in his facial expressions than he was at conveying it via music.

Poor Hugo Hymas did not get a mention as a soloist in the Barbican programme (he did in an insert handed over as a postscriptum though); he deserves extra praise, not omission, as his aria “Geduld, Geduld” was strong indeed; Reiko Ichise’s gamba obbligato was memorable for its sheer enthusiasm.

The Monteverdi Choir triumphed, the chorales a masterpiece of sculpted, heartfelt beauty, yet there was huge drama on occasion also.

This was a tremendous performance.

Colin Clarke