The St Matthew Passion can be interpreted, understood and performed in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly given the ensemble in question, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s approach involved using period instruments, and performing without a conductor. The reason for doing so was to ensure that the unity and purpose of the piece was generated from the heart of the group as opposed to being dictated by any ‘external’ force.
The case for such an approach is strong in theory, but it does require that the same levels of precision can be achieved in the absence of a specific leader to follow. In this instance, however, the OAE vindicated its decision by achieving the necessary accuracy on 95% of occasions. The rough moments were few and their impact minor, although right at the start the ensemble did seem to take a few bars to get into stride.
The OAE took a similar stance in a performance given exactly six years ago on Maundy Thursday 2009 at the Royal Festival Hall. While that, however, was also conductorless, there were still differences. The only singers then were the eight soloists, and while there was no doubting the calibre of the cast or the quality of their voices, when they sang together for the choruses the sound could feel over-indulgent. It was as if each was too obsessed with the passion they were generating individually, with the consequence that some of these beautiful choruses sounded histrionic. Here, in contrast, the principals were supported by a further eight singers (all soloists of the Choir of Enlightenment). The act of having double the number of voices forced everyone to think more perhaps about conforming, with the consequence that the sound felt precise and emotive still, but far less overblown.
The stagecraft was simple yet effective. The four ‘main’ soloists sat at the centre of the orchestra and the other twelve singers in diagonals to the left and right, with some occasionally moving from one side to the other. The eight soloists were also divided evenly to head up the two choruses, but the flexibility granted by some people changing places meant that the two choruses could be pitted against each other, or that the group could be geographically divided into its four voice sections. Another device sometimes employed was for soloists to sing their recitatives towards the side of the stage before moving to the centre for the aria that followed.
Pacing is not necessarily something we would imagine requires much thought in a St Matthew Passion, and yet this performance proved just how much it does by achieving it to perfection. By providing a pause of just a few seconds after ‘Erbarme dich’ before the following chorale, but leaving no space at all between the ending of ‘Er hat uns Allen wohlgethan’ and the next entry of the Evangelist, both variation and momentum were maintained, which enabled the emotions to be layered one on top of the other.
One also sensed that Peters Sellars’ staged version of the Passion, first performed in Berlin in 2010 and seen last year at the Proms, had left its mark, possibly through Mark Padmore who was both the evening’s and that director’s Evangelist. Sellars frequently had individual singers interact with ‘their’ solo instruments and, although this performance never went quite that far, some singers and players (who stood for certain arias) did gaze at each other, thus creating a form of bond.
From among the strong line-up of soloists, which included Fflur Wynn and Matthew Brook, Padmore certainly stood out. The clarity and edge to his voice combined with an ethereal lightness that overall made his sound feel immensely warm and engaging. As Christus, Stephan Loges’ voice was relatively firm and clear, but it was the slightly ‘smoky’ tinge to his bass-baritone that gave it such a full and rounded quality. Sophie Bevan’s soprano was sweet, sensitive, pure and precise while Paula Murrihy’s mezzo-soprano was rich and yet subtle and nuanced. Andrew Tortise’s tenor possessed a pleasing degree of weight and his sound was very well formed, while Robin Blaze’s countertenor felt like one soaring stream of searing beauty.
This performance was recorded for future release on the OAE label.