Review: Portsmouth Choral Union – St Matthew Passion

St. Mary’s, Fratton, April 1

As chance would have it, in the morning I heard the contemporary composer, Bent Sørensen, on the wireless quoted as having written, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is maybe the greatest work of art in any genre ever to be created in our culture.

So it was nice for David Gostick, PCU, Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir and Southern Pro Musica to have something to work with. I can’t completely agree, though. The Matthew Passion has plenty of recitative and thus does nearly as much ‘telling’ as ‘showing’ and would-be writers are advised not to do that. I’d rather it were left up to them but in this case the drama is diluted by narration. Daniel Thomson’s airy, sympathetic tenor did a sterling job of carrying that throughout and the real action was enacted by three other soloists augmented by Judas, Pilate and more from within the choir’s ranks. But it is J.S. Bach who is, I would agree, the ‘greatest artist in any genre ever in our culture’ and so one doesn’t want to miss it.

Iris Korfker’s soprano aria, Jesus, Saviour, I am Thine rang handsomely over a woodwind accompaniment and Hugo Herman-Wilson’s baritone had control, and the dignity that was a feature of the performance all through its cast. The chorus was glorious in the recurrent theme that first appears in Receive me, my Redeemer and Daniel had the opportunity to extend himself in a nuanced solo before the first half ended on the high drama of the betrayal with Behold, my saviour is now taken in which Iris was joined by contralto, Olympia Hetherington, their voices wrapped together and apart over restless strings and the tormented interjections of the chorus.

Looking over the shoulders of violin players at the score and the starry, starry sky of notes, it gradually dawns on one how much work not only Bach put in to put them onto paper but one glimpses something of the organisation involved in genius and, subsequently, the logistics of rehearsing each combination of musicians to make the whole so much more than its constituent parts. At the risk of stating the obvious.

Olympia was noble, opening the second half. A Passion is a downbeat piece compared to the celebrations and brassy triumph of such things as a B Minor Mass. Sophie Langdon’s solo violin over pizzicato lower strings in the Lamb of God may or may not have been something Bach picked up from his extended teenage truancy in Lübeck with his mentor, Buxtehude, but it echoed the same poignancy and was another high point before Iris’s soaring, mournful For love my Saviour is now dying and Olympia’s If my tears be unavailing accompanied by a similar violin part from the ‘second’ violins and her haunting Ah Golgotha.

There’s a niche interest to be found in Shakespeare’s minor parts, like Autolycus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or the Gravedigger and perhaps the equivalent in Bach is his bass lines, like the ‘walking’ cello under See the Saviour’s outstretched Hands! or the hypnotic continuo section of Ian Richardson’s organ in unison with the lower strings in Hugo’s penitential bass aria, Make thee clean, my heart, from sin but we were not building towards a triumphant ending full of orchestral hyperbole and joyfully redeemed choir. This part of the story, chapters 26 and 27 of Matthew’s gospel, ends with the slow tempo of the soloists and chorus laying the Lord to rest before one last wave of grief from the choral commentary.

There was fixture congestion in the region with the Renaissance Choir in Petersfield and an orchestral concert in Chichester which only serves to demonstrate in what good health music is in the local area. Nobody would have left St. Mary’s disappointed with such a captivating, and convincing, account of some sombre Bach. But the level of invention and ingenuity in music like this can never allow it to be as forbidding as perhaps it could or should be and C20th composers went on to provide the abject despair that Bach didn’t seem to have. Even in the darkest moments, it’s music first and ‘meaning’, whatever that means, later.

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