After a turbulent year, Dunedin Consort perform Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion online from Perth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J. S. Bach: Anna Dennis, Jessica Leary (sopranos), Jess Dandy, Judy Brown (altos), Andrew Tortise, David Lee (tenors), Matthew Brook, Benedict Nelson (basses), Dunedin Consort / John Butt (conductor). From Perth Concert Hall and streamed online as part of Perth’s Easter Festival of Classical Music, 27.3.2021. (SRT)

Dunedin Consort and soloists in Bach’s St Matthew Passion (c) Tommy Slack

J. S. BachSt Matthew Passion

Good Friday 2020 fell just a couple of weeks after the first lockdown had been announced, and there was still an air of slightly surreal horror about the whole thing. (What has changed, some may ask?) Everything had been cancelled, including the Dunedin Consort’s annual St Matthew Passion, and I was feeling very down. Out of the blue, I got a phone call from an old friend who was feeling the same way. We tried to gee each other along, and one of the consolations we clung to was that, surely, this would be the only Easter we would ever have to spend like this…

Well, a year on we are still trapped in our homes and the concert halls are all still shut. This time around, however, it feels like there is a definite light coming over the horizon with vaccines and hopes of reopening. It’s almost a symbol of that hope that the Dunedin Consort have found a way to do the Matthew Passion this year as a part of Perth’s Easter festival of classical music. It is all online and there are no live audiences, of course, but at least something is happening.

And it is wonderful to hear these performers in this music again. Part of the wonder of the Easter story, and of Bach’s telling of it, is that it never changes: its message of sacrifice, hope and renewal is the same every year, regardless of the circumstances, and there’s a strong argument that it’s more powerful now than ever. Certainly, in the interviews that form the interval feature for this filmed performance, all of the performers who speak express delight at performing it again, though there is a slight element of concern about how they will manage it without a live audience.

In fact, if you couldn’t see the rows of empty seats then you would never notice any difference from the lack of audience. The performances still sound completely committed. Certainly, in John Butt’s one-to-a-part realisation, the singers have no hiding place. Every year I have to consider afresh what I think of the St Matthew Passion done this way, and I can never quite make up my mind. Certainly there are gains in transparency, and the light shines through the score in a way that few other groups manage. However, I can’t quite reconcile myself to the turba choruses in Part Two done this way: they need more heft to really carry the drama with sufficient energy, and there is a loss of majesty in moments like the ‘thunder’ chorus at the moment of the betrayal, or the great final sarabande.

You cannot complain about the individual performances, though, each of which is distinctive and utterly characterful. Andrew Tortise uses his voice beautifully, alive to every nuance of the text, to bring the narrative to life with great power. Matthew Brook’s bass voice is deeply authoritative and richly expressive as Christ and, while all of the solo arias are well taken, Jess Dandy’s alto deserves special praise, marvellously rich and full of colour at the bottom of her register.

The orchestral musicians, hand-picked experts all, play superbly as a unit, and the all-important instrumental obligatti each sound marvellous, from the keening oboe of Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen and supple gamba of Komm süßes Kreuz, to the heartbreaking flute of Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben. John Butt brings decades of expertise as conductor, shaping each phrase with love while building the whole together into a coherent unit. You sense you are in the presence of greatness right from the opening chorus with its resolute tread, purposeful rather than merely doleful, the lower strings really digging into the bass line with palpable bite. Butt’s direction isn’t ostentatious: it does not need to be because he trusts his musicians to do everything they need to do without his interference, and he is right to.

Simon Thompson

Tickets available to purchase here until 26 April 2021.

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