Bach: Matthew Passion
Filmed in St John’s, Smith Square
First broadcast 3 April 2021
Before the 2020 Covid-19 sequence of lockdowns, the run-up to Easter in London was musically dominated by the St John’s, Smith Square series of concerts. These traditionally culminated in a Messiah and one of the Bach Passions for the final two sell-out concerts. The concert recorded there by Amici Voices and first broadcast on Easter Saturday was as far removed from previous years as you can get. Their Matthew Passion was performed in the round in the middle of the space with no audience. It was a very refreshing alternative to the usual Easter fare.
Performing with their own small orchestra, drawn from many of the usual suspects, the eight principal singers (with one additional soprano in Ripieno) stood in a shallow arc facing the 20 instrumentalists, the two orchestral groups also positioned in an arc facing the singers. Solo singers stepped out from the chorus to stand at the centre of the musical stage, the ‘stage’ being the chequer-board floor usually filled with audience chairs.
From the rhythmically pulsating pedal point of the opening Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen it was clear that this was going to be a performance to remember. The interwoven choral O Lamm Gottes unschuldig was well integrated into the chorus, although we had the usual problem with a tiny continuo organ in that it relied on the choral melody being played at a very high pitch, rather than the Sesquialtera stop that Bach would probably have intended. It is a shame that, to my knowledge, the UK still does not have a suitable organ at the right pitch, temperament and specification to accompany Bach.
The singers were sopranos Rowan Pierce & Jessica Cale, altos Helen Charlston & Alexander Chance, tenors Nick Pritchard (Evangelist) & Guy Cutting, bass Michael Craddock (Christus) & Frederick Long (Pilot), with Molly Noon as soprano in Ripieno. Their principal continuo support came from Jonathan Rees and Henrik Persson, who excelled in their cello roles as well as their distinctive viola da gamba moments, alongside the keyboard continuo players were William Whitehead, organ and Julian Perkins, harpsichord.
The solo instrumental contributions were outstanding, notably from first violinist Bojan Čičić who, as well as his key solo moments, was also key in keeping everything together in this impressively conductorless performance. Other key instrumental moments came from Rachel Brown & Eva Caballero, flutes, and Leo Duarte & Bethan White, oboes.
Nick Pritchard and Michael Craddock were excellent as the Evangelist and Christus, both portraying real emotion in their character portrayals. Amongst the subsidiary roles, Frederick Long made an impressive Pilot, while the individual arias sung by other chorus members were all excellent despite, perhaps inevitably, there occasionally being rather too much vocal vibrato for my taste, particularly amongst the upper voices where, unfortunately, it is usually more noticeable.
Helen Charlston was credited as directing Amici Voices but on this occasion her direction during the actual performance was extraordinarily subtle. The whole event felt brilliantly cooperative, the musicians working together and responding to each other in a way that is impossible with a conductor. But Helen Charlston certainly deserves credit for the considerable achievement of putting the whole thing together during difficult times.
Booking details and the full cast list can be found here. There are a number of ticket options, one of which includes a handsome printed programme which is well worth reading. This includes eight pages of comments from the performers reflecting on performing the Matthew Passion, a thoughtful introduction from Helen Charleston reinforcing the plight of musicians during the Covid year, and a well-drafted commentary on the music itself by Olwen Foulkes.
For some reason there was no mention of the technical crew in the programme, although the closing credits mentioned Dave Hinitt as the audio enginneer and video producer along with three camera crew and a score reader who presumably directed much of the camera work. For on-line productions like this, their contribution is essential and is worth ackowledging. The camera work was sensitively unobtrusive, and helped to engage the viewing audience in a way that a live performance, whatever its merits, just cannot do. The sound quality was excellent, the empty hall giving a more than usually generous acoustic, the only downside of which was the occasional sound of page turns. One nice detail of the production was that the wires to the microphones and cameras were carefully positioned to run along the lines of the floor tiles.
However much the eventual return to live concert going must be welcomed, I do wonder if Covid-19 has presented us with a real alternative with the chance to watch well-filmed and recorded music like this at home. How the finances of this, and other similar ventures, works out is another question. Even with this delightfully chamber-like paired down performance, there were a lot of musicians to employ along with all the ancilliary expenses.
An extract and a rehearsal video can be viewed here and here. The recording is available to view until 1 June via this link, and is thoroughly recommended.