It was, I admit, with a little trepidation that I agreed to write a review of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed at All Saints Church by Phoenix Choir under the direction of Michael Fields.
This is, after all, a huge work, which utilises large forces and runs for around three hours - a brave undertaking for any amateur ensemble.
However, my fears were rapidly alleviated when the performance began. The choir was in fine fettle, fired up with enthusiasm and creating a rich, full sound and tackling the difficult German text well - occasionally muddied a little, but admirably competent overall. The choir became part of the drama and the various roles assigned to individuals were well realised and sung convincingly. The accompanying Linden Baroque orchestra, split into orchestras one and two, added to the authenticity of the piece with their original instruments, although these did give a few tuning problems. There were occasional misalignments between the choir and orchestra, due to the large distance between them, but none of this detracted from the whole-hearted involvement of all the participants.
This monumental work does not just tell the story of the passion of Christ: it invites us in, to become part of the drama. It is impossible to stand back from the unfolding agony without being personally challenged to engage with it. Atheist, Jewish and Muslims commentators have observed that the work is so devastating in its power that even non-Christians can find meaning in it. It says much for this performance that the audience were still as stone throughout and were fully engaged, leaving a minute of stunned silence after the final chord.
Of the soloists, Julian Podger had the challenge of the Evangelist, who is “on display” throughout. A pleasing tenor voice, sometimes a little unstable, but inhabiting the role with passion and managing to create a different character for the two tenor arias aside from his given role. Irish soprano Aisling Kenny showed off a glorious top register, crystal clear and ringing, delighting the audience, but was rather weaker in her lower register, which did not carry so well. Johanna Krödel, from Hanover, pleased with her warm and deep alto, and excellent conveying of the text. Her rendition of the aria, “Erbarme Dich” (arguably the most beautiful aria in the Passion), was sung with real emotion and beautifully accompanied by Julia Bishop on the violin. But the undisputed star of the evening was bass Daniel Ochoa. A German singer who has also sung opera, his portrayal of Christus was extraordinary. The voice, pure silk and honey, was effortless, but able to convey all the colours necessary to flesh out his character. Beautifully focused and with crisp diction throughout, his performance was flawless and we could see why this is a voice which is rapidly being recognised worldwide. He used a Jewish prayer shawl throughout to great effect, finally folding it up and placing it in the middle of the aisle to symbolise Christ’s burial, which personally brought me to tears.
This work, completed for Good Friday in 1727, was originally only performed a few times under the direction of Bach himself. After his death, the work was felt to be unperformable until resurrected by Mendelssohn a century later. This performance in the intimate setting of All Saints proved to be a wonderfully, deeply moving event. A heartfelt “well done” to Michael Fields and the Phoenix Choir. By Carol Mounter.
Photography by Wil Wardle.