J.S.Bach's Passion of St. Matthew
All Saints' Church, February 2018
It was, I admit, with a little trepidation that I agreed to write a review of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which was to be performed at All Saints Church, Eastbourne, by Phoenix Choir on 17 February, under the direction of Michael Fields. This is, after all, a huge work, which utilises large forces and runs for around 3 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 the three and a half hours 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 very 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 world-wide. He used a Jewish prayer shawl throughout to great effect, finally folding it up and placing it in the middle of the church 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; he had such a special love for it that he made a presentation copy, beautifully bound and highlighting the biblical quotes in red. After his death, the work was felt to be unperformable and was left unpublished and unheard until resurrected by Mendelssohn a century later. Since then, it has been performed all over the world and is recognised as one of the masterpieces of sacred music. 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.
Official Photographer for the evening:
Phoenix Choir welcomes new season.
Phoenix Choir is set to resume rehearsals in preparation for its winter concert on Saturday 17 February 2018. Following their diverse and successful performances of last year’s season, they will be rising to the challenge of a great work which has rarely been performed in Eastbourne in recent times and will also be a first for Phoenix – the beautiful and much-loved sacred Passion of St. Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The work tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary according to the Evangelist St Matthew and was originally written for liturgical use on Good Friday in Leipzig where Bach was Musical Director. Many have described this great work as “the opera that he never wrote”. Perhaps frustrated at his failure to obtain work in opera, Bach incorporated many operatic traditions into the piece; it is musically ambitious and intensely dramatic with a large cast as well as double choir and double orchestra. Much of the story is told by a tenor Evangelist and Christ's words are sung by a bass. As was traditional, verses from chorales familiar to the congregation are placed throughout the work, allowing them to join in with the narrative, with soloists and choruses having the opportunity to comment or reflect on the action taking place. Like Handel’s Messiah, it seems to be open to any number of adaptations. Some have interpreted the movements in Bach’s work as dance movements and believe them to be an expression of his spirituality. They also compare the interaction between cast, choir and musicians with the call and response tradition of African church music.
The piece evolved as Bach returned to amend it several times in his life. Incredible as it seems now, it lapsed into relative obscurity and was rarely heard performed even by Bach himself. It was Felix Mendelssohn who in championing many of Bach’s works rescued the piece 79 years after his death and bought it to the fore again - hard to comprehend when it has been described as ‘the musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel’ such is the precision, purity and beauty of the musical construction through which Bach masterfully conveys the drama and emotion of the Passion.
Phoenix Choir will perform the Passion as it was written – in German. Michael Fields, Musical Director of Phoenix, is recognised for his talent at engaging audiences with his fresh and dramatic interpretation of established works and he has much to work with here. A stellar cast of internationally renowned soloists, all of whom are reputed for their dramatic and expressive style will complete the ensemble. There is much to be excited about as Phoenix reconvene for their new season.