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ROOKIE REVIEW: J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Heather Rose highlights her standout moments from Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Symphony Hall

I was so excited to come and see this performance because the St Matthew Passion is one of the most celebrated pieces in the Baroque repertory, and I was not disappointed. Despite it being nearly three hours long, I never lost interest, and the players and singers maintained their energy and expression throughout. The performance was perfectly coordinated, full of intensity and angst-ridden chromaticism, and it was fantastic!

As the piece is so long, I can’t discuss all of it in detail, but I will mention some personal highlights. The opening instrumental section was perfectly paced, building from an understated start to the tension and drama of the choral entry. I was glad that there were English subtitles above the stage, as, although I could have enjoyed the music without understanding the text, it was really helpful to be able to properly follow the passion story as it unfolded. It also made the performance much more accessible to people who may not have been familiar with the story

The reappearance of the ‘Passion chorale’ at various points also never got boring – although we were just listening, it was easy to imagine these points as when the entire congregation would join in, and it gave a very human, relatable side to the performance.

The leader of the first orchestra, Zoe Beyers, gave an excellent solo in the Erbarme dich (Have mercy) aria (no. 39), and her tone blended beautifully with Martha McLorinan’s alto line. However, the star of the show was definitely Andrew Tortise, the Evangelist/1st tenor, evidenced by the wild applause he received at the end of the show. Although this role serves mainly as a narrator (and so most of his solo content was recitative, not the more memorable arias), he delivered the story with clarity of text, and the higher notes were sung with impressive ease and grace.

This isn’t to say that the other soloists weren’t great as well – Grant Doyle (Jesus/Bass I) did particularly well given that he was a last-minute stand-in for James Rutherford who unfortunately couldn’t perform due to illness. The soloists also joined in with the choir when they weren’t singing their solo parts, which gave a great sense of community and equality to the performance.

Another standout moment was in the no. 45 recitative, when both choruses announced that they wanted to release the other prisoner Barrabas. Their tone on singing the word ‘Barrabam’ was clear and chilling, and even if I hadn’t known what was happening in the story at this point, it would have been obvious that this was the moment when Jesus’ fate was sealed.

The final highlight was during the no. 63 recitative, when the choruses (taking the role of the centurion) sang ‘Truly, this was the son of God’. The tone of this statement almost seemed to shimmer in the air, giving an angelic aspect to the previously very human performance.

All in all, the performance exceeded my expectations; the instrumentalists and singers were perfectly coordinated, and the diction and German pronunciation were excellent. It also perfectly captured the drama and intensity of the passion story, and was a fantastic way to spend Good Friday afternoon!

I’m Heather, a second year music student at the University of Birmingham, and I love all things musical! I am a keen writer and I also write for the university Music department’s official blog: ‘Bantock, Raybould and me’. Being able to review THSH events is so exciting and I can’t wait to share my opinions with you!