St Matthew Passion – review

Audience gathering at start of concert

The St Matthew Passion took place in Winchester Cathedral on a balmy and calm Saturday night, 9 April. After much rehearsing and drilling from Charles (who must be the world’s leading authority on the work!), the performance seemed to hit all the right buttons – band, soloists and choir all coming together to create a wonderful event. The crit said the following:

SOUTHERN VOICES/SOUTHERN SINFONIA – Winchester Cathedral

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is one of the greatest works of Western civilisation and a large audience in Winchester Cathedral was privileged to hear a complete team of musicians who clearly felt the same. Furthermore, they had the necessary artistry and commitment to communicate the power and profundity of the work in its entirety. Sung in German, and thus preserving Bach’s rhythmic intentions, the story unfolded with total drama and an instinctive feeling for language – a hallmark of the evening’s conductor, Charles Stewart, who had planned this epic presentation over many months. Non-German speakers still experienced the intensity of the human tragedy through the wonderfully nuanced singing of both soloists and forty-four members of Southern Voices. Supporting them was the period instrument section of the Southern Sinfonia, which always plays with alertness and enthusiasm in whatever styles are demanded of them.

Part 1 established the awesome credentials of Evangelist William Kendall, surely one of this country’s most practised, intelligent and fine-toned interpreters of Bach’s taxing recitatives. In the pulpit, fitting in age and dignity, was Hampshire Singer of the Year winner Jimmy Holliday as Jesus. He brought great power and realism to his accompanied recitatives as well as a thoughtful final aria in Part 2. Tenor Tim Lawrence and bass Marcus Farnsworth were equally compelling in their contributions and both used fine diction to reach across the great building. A frequent visitor to Cathedral programmes, Katharine Fuge produced consistently beautiful soprano tone and neat Baroque clarity. Newcomer mezzo soprano Clare Wilkinson has recorded the Passion and sang virtually all her music from memory with mesmerising effect on her listeners. Perhaps these two lighter female voices would have benefited from reduced orchestral strength in their solos but their engagement with the drama was never in doubt.

Part 2 saw the choir come into its own. It was first-rate before the Interval but as crowd choruses and eventual regretful humanity they were now totally credible and deeply moving by turns. This work articulates prejudice, greed, violence and social exclusion. If Charles Stewart’s directions were restrained and economical they still released a remarkably vivid retelling of this time-honoured yet ever relevant narrative.

Submitted by:  Derek Beck

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