Conductor Adrian Lucas, choir and orchestra applaud Paul Spicer who was too unwell to conduct. Pictures: Phil Barnes

St. Matthew Passion

Lichfield Cathedral


The Birmingham Bach Choir always hits the heights. Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew, or its five-year predecessor the St. John Passion, is sung by large choruses across the kingdom in the run-up to Easter.

I wonder if many will have matched that given in Lichfield Cathedral by Paul Spicer's justly famed and acclaimed vocal ensemble.

This performance was glorious for countless reasons. The choir as usual gave its all - one would expect nothing less. But that is too blanket a description. Enunciation, impeccable pitching, intonation, meticulous (and at times sensuous) phrasing, confident pacing, empathy with the biblical text in the original German, insight in the chorales, which here felt deeply relevant to the juxtaposed passage of text, not mere additions as is so often the case.

Here was a 70-strong chorus, with the exquisite, highly polished voices of Lichfield Cathedral Choir and the boys of the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum on hand to lend additional, even adorable ripieno colour, intensively and perceptively rehearsed, with magical results. Not that the story is magical (Bach, or his librettist, omits, perhaps surprisingly, the optimism of Christ's mysterious disappearance and Resurrection itself). It is, as we all know, profoundly tragic: benign at the outset, it portrays growing doubt, betrayal, humiliation, courage, agony, and ultimately death.

So, the choir has to capture these moods, embrace them, diversify, not leave them as mere relatively meaningless adornment. It did all of this, and more.

Pacing, phrasing: so much of this is owed to the wisdom of a conductor. Paul Spicer had alerted Adrian Lucas - conductor of one of Birmingham's other marvellous choruses, the City of Birmingham Choir - to be ready to take over if he should be indisposed.

And that is what happened. Lucas has always shown terrific talent and sensitivity in his conducting: at Portsmouth Cathedral, where I first heard him; and at Worcester, where he honed the Worcester Festival Choral Society and revealed exciting programming, leadership and artistry at the world-famous Three Choirs Festival.

What one admired about Lucas's oversight of this unforgettable performance was - everything. The whole interpretation. Right from the start, he showed magnificent command of Bach's stupefyingly brilliant orchestral score. No section of the woodwind, or indeed the strings, got overlooked.


Lucas nursed, induced, balanced, beautifully shaped and phrased the Baroque flutes and oboes, giving leash to Mark Wilson's expressive, plaintive bassoon, Hannah Blomsohn's rich array of oboes - oboe d'amore and other rarities from higher to lowest register - producing sensational individual timbres; and (for the alto's fast-moving "alas, Golgotha", for example); and the besotting sound of Henrik Persson's viola da gamba solo in the later stages (equivalent to the agonisingly beautiful, similarly gamba-accompanied "Es ist vollbracht" from Bach's St. John Passion) of the wonderful Midland - as it happens Worcester-based - Musical and Amicable Society: clearly a body of musicians to at least liken to, say, the wondrous, instinctive brilliance of the renowned period-instrument bands of, if (and only if) not Nikolaus Harnoncourt, then Edward Higginbottom, Paul McCreesh, Andrew Parrott, Jeffrey Skidmore, or Harry Christophers (both sides of the Atlantic).

It was the (many) restrained touches of Lucas' conducting that impressed me - surely Lichfield's very full audience too - so much. Oft times he reduced his beat (Bach writes for two separate, here adjacent orchestras) to a minimum - often hand (no baton) low down, close to his body, suggesting precisely the intensity or depth, or indeed passion, of the sad evolving narrative. With the soloists, and even sometimes one of his two orchestras, he more than occasionally paused his beat completely, deferring to the ability and good sense of his singers. By its very minimalism, this was mastery indeed: perceptive, inspiring leadership.

All the more so as Lucas confided to me - and hopefully to others - that he had never conducted the St. Matthew Passion before. One almost wanted to say "Pull the other one". But no, perhaps such on the night command, judgement and discernment flowed precisely from this. For it was not just a fine performance. The freshness shone out, as it doubtless did were we the audience at St. Thomas's, Leipzig in 1729.

Another star was the Lichfield acoustic. I'd forgotten how marvellous it is. A level of reverberance, embracing the sound, neither diminishing nor overwhelming, such as may be detected in certain specific English or German cathedrals, It yielded a fabulous, floating sound from all involved, especially Paul Spicer's alert, on-form chorus.

Six markedly competent - no, admirable - soloists, were fronted by the scintillating Evangelist of the amply in demand, Exeter-born tenor Thomas Hobbs. Every time, mainly left free by Lucas to explore his longer narrations - he shone like a beacon. Take the classic example where the thrice-denying Peter hears the cock crow, as Christ predicted, "Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich" (wept bitterly). The orchestra, or more often continuo's (cello, organ), matching of the Evangelist at each stage, and indeed his alertness to them, was one of the evening's many glories. This whole exceptional Birmingham Bach Choir performance was an exemplar of how the Passion can, must, be sung.

Thomas Hobbs

Eed Lyon perhaps couldn't quite match him in the tenor arias (he has gone on since dazzling at the Royal Academy to make - amongst much else - an entranced Jupiter in Handel's Semele, a sinister Peter Quint in Garsington's The Turn of the Screw, the title role in WNO's Candide, and a major role in Cavalli's Eliogabalo (the wayward teenage Emperor) in Amsterdam. His operatic CV is astonishing. Yet near the beginning, vivid and abetted by poised, semistaccato flutes (of which four were needed for the striking divided or double orchestra, he unveiled for us a true marvel.

But the truly astounding solos came from Henry Waddington as a noble, challenging, beautifully sung Jesus (Christus). A man of marked stature, and another opera regular, he looks like a John Tomlinson in the making (even a more interesting voice). He has carried off Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss), sung Falstaff, and fascinatingly, in Opera North's King Croesus (more Baroque: Bach's admired contemporary, Reinhard Keiser). He has great power and a towering presence. In his hands, every utterance of Christ's spoke reams.

The baritone Stephan Loges's role is to support and to plead. In "Gerne will ich mich bequemen", and the aching "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder", for instance. "Mache dich, mein Herze rein" lilts like a kind of waltz. One thinks of Loge's (original) compatriot the great Max von Egmond, or Dutch Baroque specialist Pieter Kooy. Loges dealt capably with incidental roles - Pilate, for example, substantial although perhaps not as gut-wrenching in the writing as in Bach's St. John - or the fibbing, guilt-ridden St. Peter. Loges' singing was essentially gentle, evincing loyalty, as the extended text (a full 20 pages of the finely presented programme book) and situation demands.

Sophie Bevan excelled, as she invariably does, as the soprano soloist, not least where subdued, or paired in one extraordinary two-soloist duet with alto, plus fickle choir (now on Christ's side), lamenting Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen".

Bach reserves the plum solo role, however, for the contralto (think of Janet Baker), or more appropriately to the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, countertenor. To have got the sensational Laurence Zazzo to perform here was a marvel. More often associated with operas (galore), the American is one of the very top male altos in the world. His artistry and projection are nothing short of genius. "Erbarme dich", followed by " Können Tränen meiner Wangen", with its bouncing semiquavers and demisemiquavers (the very short notes) is one of Bach's most celebrated movements ever. "Buß und Reu" ("Grief for sin"), which links what we might call two panels or tapestries - the anointing at Bethany and the treachery of Judas, whom Jesus genuinely rather than ironically greets as "My friend" - is of course another. The St. Matthew is as littered with gems as the Milky Way.


The first-named above - and when not meekly (though scarcely peaceably) empathising - Zazzo (a famed Handel Julius Caesar) can certainly ensure they carry to the far East end (the choirs being at the West). "Erbarme" is a classic example of how Bach manages to turn a four-word phrase (almost a Haiku) into several minutes of aria, with repetitions but also numerous variants. 'Picander' (pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici, his librettist, not yet thirty) produces literary masterpiece after masterpiece (the grieving text for Bach's earlier St. John Passion remains, bizarrely, anonymous).

Henrici's rhyming in German plays a major role in the impact of the whole oratorio. What proved a joy was that the meticulous and enthralling translator(s) here (Nicholas Fisher and John Russell) produce rhymes (languish-anguish, throe-woe, broken-token, etc.) as refined, and transparently perfect, as to equal the original (which often follows a preferred chiasmic pattern: line 1 rhymes with 6, 2 with 5, etc. A very fine feat enhancing the audience's understanding of every line, and also, in both German and English, the rhyme enhancing pace as well as diction. Two paradoxes, "His sufferings are bitter, but also sweet", and "For that which yields the greatest gain involves the sharpest pain" are typical of the poignancy of the whole.

But of course, praise above all to the strikingly well-balanced chorus: Bach is its name, and in Bach how it excelled, and how ably they grasped every nuance of the text. Occasionally voices peep out: Corinna Gregory's First maid (challenging the cowed Peter) and Pilate's wife - as in the New Testament a very significant role, were delightfully articulate. The famed Chorales were superbly, sensitively done, especially when Lucas inspiredly managed subtly to elicit from them poignant diminuendos (he even bravely used minimal hand movements for passages of the entire choir, or sections of it, to wondrous effect). An example among many: "Erkenne mich, mein Hüte, Mein Hirte, nimm mich an...Von dir, Quell aller Güter.." ("Recognise me, my Redeemer, my Shepherd take me to Thyself, fountain of all goodness";

This top-class Bach from a tip-top class choir, all voices (the basses have some splendid, significant, forceful lead-ins). Vigorous but not excessive at the cruel demand for "Barabbas"; or sneering up on Calvary ("Save yourself, come down from the Cross if you're the Son of God!"). And changing their minds - or perhaps as a different gathering - "Truly this was the Son of God". The cathedral acoustic worked wonders with the chorus. And they achieved miracles thanks to it.

full choir


A proportion of the chorus parts, like the soloists', are composed da capo, that is, in an a-b-a form, with a quite hefty central section followed by a repeat of the first. Handel's opera solos rely on them. In Bach, the repeats are not tiresome or noisome, nor even repetitive. He may descant over the opening section or vary the accompaniment and choir parts considerably for the last section, to marvelous and often touching effect.

One detail that struck one was the way Lucas, from the very start, rounded off each solo, or indeed chorus. Many times, he let the final sound, syllable or word linger on, to relish before lightly concluding a movement. It made those other moments where he opted for a more abrupt, instant termination all the more effective by contrast. But much thanks to him, the now chastened chorus's replies wrapped round Zazzo's brilliantly broken juxtaposition, even merger, of death and hope ("Wohin?...Wo?"), just before the Ninth hour darkening, the bursting open of tombs, and Jesus' last call, were carried off with pinprick precision. A choral near-staccato is always hard to pull off so perfectly.

And so the death scene. How Thomas Hobbs managed to evince the crucial Sixth hour at a (quadruple) pianissmo, yet still come across so lucidly was utterly remarkable. Yet so too at the Ninth (usually said to be 3 p.m.) Christ's racked, desolate, agonised cry "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani" (the original Hebrew "azavtani") seemed to encapsulate everything Waddington's majestic Christ had been building up to. As indeed the Crucifixion was. Faced with the death, even the chorus itself delved into a triple piano, coaxed by Lucas. Totally remarkable.

And so Bach concludes with not Mary Magdalen and the Resurrection (as many do, including Elgar, who takes us beyond the Sepulchre's opening to the Ascension), but with the huge stone being rolled across the tomb (just as the St. John stops with Joseph of Arimathea), rather as if the laying to rest of Jesus' body is the finished job. It's slightly strange, jarring even: as if Bach had to get his imploring oratorio finished in time. Yet it diminishes this marvellous work not one iota. "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte Ruh!" ("Rest gently, gently rest": a form of 'Ruh' appears five times in the one chorale); plus a final "schlummern" ("slumber", like the movement "Schummert ein" in Bach's famous bass solo cantata "Ich habe genug", composed two years before the St. Matthew.

So, all ends not in expectation of Resurrection (as the excellent, occasionally licence-permitting English text implies), but in calm. We, the grieving believers, imagine ourselves outside Christ's sepulchre, our troubled hearts and dejection envisaging a dead yet liberated Jesus wrapped in solitude, warmed by enfolding peace.

This was a superlative performance by Birmingham Bach Choir, the entire concert - the whole impeccably- prepared enterprise- distinguished in every way. Every one of these intelligent, thoughtful supporting forces contributed outstandingly to the result. Here was the kind of performance one dreams of. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Roderic Dunnett


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