St. Matthew Passion

Despite its small size, JOE BATES is stunned by St. Matthew’s Passion

henry scarlett sidney arts fair st matthew passion

8pm, Friday 24th June, Sidney Sussex Chapel.

[rating: 4/5]

Collaborations between professionals and students can, all too often, serve only to emphasis the gulf in experience between the two. The professionals often feel like filler, brought in to plug the gaps in an ensemble. Yet in Sidney Sussex’s one-to-a-part rendition of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion the strength of the collaboration was evident.

The Evangelist was sung by Nicholas Mulroy, a professional tenor. His performance was the highlight of the show; his strong, clear tenor voice flexible and expressive. His strong acting articulated his melodic lines; his wide eyed, passionate intensity bringing a great level of expression to his role.

Basil MacDonald’s Christ, was by contrast, grave and decorous in his role. It is, perhaps, fortunate for him that he chose not to emulate his professional colleague too much but to develop and distinct approach to the oratorio’s tricky balance of drama and liturgy.

The role of Christ is really brought to life by the orchestral ‘halo’ that surrounds his solemn bass utterances. The orchestra was often very good: Margeret Faultless proved an energetic and effective leader, whilst phenomenal bass playing held the ensemble firmly by its foundations.

It was only in the orchestra’s sparser moments that flaws began to emerge. Many of the duets that mark the arias in the Passion were marred by intonation flaws and by uncertainty musical direction. In the long periods in between cadences, the musical trajectory often seemed unclear.

It was the full chorus moments that were most assured. The diminished ensemble punched above its weight; its conviction and clarity of attack gave it impressive impact. The interjections in ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ were truly hair-raising. The smaller ensemble was a sensible trade-off: the reduced volume was more that compensated for by its coordination and high quality.

The ambiguity between the roles played the ensemble was interested. Having the same singer play both Judas and a sympathetic choric figure did not, as the program claimed, trace a path towards redemption but throw the focus on Christ and the Evangelist. As these two were the strongest musicians, they carried the performance with aplomb.

Overall, the evening was extremely successful. By reducing ensemble size, the producer (Henry Scarlett) was able to ensure only the finest singers were involved. Any remaining doubts about intonation or orchestral commitment were brushed away in the barnstorming final chorus, which left the audience to emerge from Sidney’s stunning chapel suitably stunned.