Bach’s St Matthew Passion, one of the great masterpieces of the baroque and indeed the whole choral repertoire, never fails to be a moving experience. This performance, with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under the direction of conductor Harry Bicket, was no exception, the extremes of cruelty and compassion at its heart all the more poignant in these troubled times. These days, when both this and the St John Passion more often feature small choruses and ensembles, the large assembled chorus at first looked suspiciously hefty. In fact, in the gradual unfolding of the Passion story, the ability of the chorus to negotiate the different colours Bach requires – the sometimes rowdy rabble, mocking, jeering and the chorales, whether questioning or more reflective – added much to the growing dramatic tension over the progress of the work.
This concert had first been scheduled for Easter 2020, and reassembling the same lineup of soloists was a plus, though tenor Jeremy Budd in the role of the Evangelist was a late replacement for Gwilym Bowen, who was ill. Budd’s recitatives had great clarity and sensitivity, but, positioned as he was at the centre, just in front of the chamber organ, not always sufficient volume (though the audience for Wednesday’s Radio 3 broadcast will not have that problem). David Shipley was a deeply felt Jesus, the pleas “Mein Vater!” particularly evocative. Mhairi Lawson’s silver tone was a good foil for Jess Dandy’s rich contralto in the work’s single duet and the remarkable intensity of Dandy’s delivery was nowhere more telling than in the aria Können Tränen meiner Wangen Nichts erlangen.
Tenor Anthony Gregory brought such a naturally lyrical flow to his contributions that one wished there had been more, while the expressive range of James Newby’s baritone in characterising his various roles, including Judas, Peter and Pontius Pilate, was finely judged, notably his final aria in which Joseph of Arimathaea asks to be allowed to bury Christ’s body. The instrumental solos whose balance with the voices are intrinsic to the beauty of Bach’s conceptions were similarly satisfying.
Many of the Passion’s movements are in triple time – Hamburg Ballet has recently collaborated with Los Angeles Opera in a production – and, in Bicket’s expert handling of his considerable forces, the lightly lilting dancing quality he achieved was also a memorable facet.