Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview – a plethora of Passion performances to please lovers of Bach’s St Matthew

Passionate about Bach’s greatest work? Here’s your chance to hear it over Lent and Easter, both in London and elsewhere.

Birmingham Bach Choir

Birmingham Bach Choir (Photo: Dave Freak)

Bach’s greatest? Some might disagree, citing the lovely, cerebral St John Passion or perhaps the excitement of the Brandenburg Concertos or the structural perfection of the Chaconne from the Partita for Violin no. 2. But for those of us for whom the St Matthew Passion is the pinnacle, it’s good to know that many of us will be able to hear it ‘live’ over the next few weeks.

First off is the excellent Birmingham Bach Choir under their conductor Paul Spicer, who considers the piece to be “…the greatest work created by the human mind” and for whom the opportunity to perform it “is like winning the lottery”. This is an early performance, on Saturday 9 March, and it will take place in the glorious surroundings of Lichfield Cathedral at 19.00. The renowned soloists include Lawrence Zazzo, Sophie Bevan and Henry Waddington, and they will be joined by the period instrumental orchestra the Musical and Amicable Society and the Ripieno Choir. If you’re in the Midlands or even if you fancy a weekend break from far away, Lichfield is the most charming small city, not just for its cathedral but for its many Georgian buildings – it’s also the birthplace of Samuel Johnson.

On the following weekend, 17 March brings a performance by the Bach Choir and Florilegium at London’s Royal Festival Hall – this one is the choir’s traditional annual St Matthew Passion, and is sung in English. As usual with this group the soloists are stellar, and include Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams.

We move to Scotland for the next two performances, in Glasgow at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 21 March and Edinburgh at The Queen’s Hall on 22 March. On both evenings The Dunedin Consort and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be joined by soloists including Anna Dennis and Claudia Huckle.

Back in London for the final two performances, 26 March sees Westminster Abbey as the setting for part of the St John’s Smith Square Easter Festival, when the Abbey’s renowned choir will be joined by St James’ Baroque. Finally, on 29 March, the Barbican will be host to the Academy of Ancient Music, in a performance conducted by Laurence Cummings and featuring soloists including Tim Mead and Nicholas Mulroy.

To whet the appetite for these events, which of the many recordings of Bach’s monumental work are ‘the best’? Impossible to say that, of course, as it depends so much your preferred style, tempi, soloists and direction, but these are the ones most often heard on the present writer’s devices. Firstly, the version by the Concentus Musicus Wien directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the Vienna Boys Choir, for its fresh, uplifting interpretation, for the wonderfully direct Evangelist of Christoph Prégardien and the warm, compassionate Christus of Matthias Goerne. Secondly, Otto Klemperer’s magisterial recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus – it’s too slow for some, of course, but for sheer grandeur and for the superb Evangelist of Peter Pears and the poetic Christus of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it’s hard to beat.

• Details of these St Matthew Passion performances are here:

Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield – 9 March
Royal Festival Hall, London – 17 March
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow – 21 March
The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh – 22 March
Westminster Abbey, London – 26 March
Barbican Centre, London – 29 March

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