The London Handel Festival’s annual performance of the St Matthew Passion, performed in the context of the service of Vespers (that is, complete with prayers, a sermon and hymns sung in part by the congregation) might lead you to imagine that it would focus on the purely devotional aspects of the work, omitting the fervent drama which more ‘standard’ concert hall renditions might possess. That would be a mistake, given the emotional intensity of Laurence Cummings’ direction and the almost operatic style favoured by the singers.
In the Evangelist of Nathan Vale and the Christus of George Humphreys we had as fine a pair of soloists as could be wished: it was a lot to ask of such young singers that they tackle not only the recitatives but the challenging tenor and bass arias, and with the exception of a few wayward notes towards the end of the day both acquitted themselves very well. Nathan Vale won both the First and Audience Prize at the 2006 Handel Festival, a distinction which should surprise no one hearing his eloquent articulation, silvery tone and exceptional sense of dramatic engagement; that he is a pupil of the great Ryland Davies certainly shows, and the influence of Philip Langridge is also detectable. He gave beautifully nuanced presentations of the narrative and sang the arias with the required fervour.
George Humphrys was a new name to us, and one we expect to hear a great deal more. He had a majestic presence as Christus, and sang his recitatives with commanding eloquence. Of his arias, ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ was the most confidently sung, aided by exciting violin accompaniment from Oliver Webber. He rose to the occasion of that testing final line in ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ (Durch den ersten Trunk versüsset) with finely nuanced phrasing, and if he flagged a little in ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,’ that was understandable after such a marathon sing.
We’ve previously remarked upon the nobility of Tim Mead’s singing, and here he showed once more that he is the prince of counter-tenors: aria after aria was sung with liquid tone, exquisite phrasing and consummate control, ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ perhaps the high point in a flawless performance. Elizabeth Cragg’s vibrant tone and highly dramatic style were ideal for the soprano arias, and she made the most of her declarations.
The very small Choir of St George’s might not impress with its sheer power as some other groups can, but what it lacked in size it made up for in precision, dramatic attack (especially in ‘Erkenne mich, mein Hüter) and sense of prayerful devotion. Laurence Cummings held everything together with his customary enthusiasm and commitment, and he drew very fine playing from the London Handel Orchestra, with especially noteworthy contributions from Mark Caudle (Viola da Gamba, ‘cello) and Adrian Butterfield (Violin, Leader.)
The church was packed as usual, and its glorious embellishments – including that unique commemoration of every Churchwarden from even before Handel’s own time of worship there – are reason enough for a visit, and as always it was Bach’s music rather than prayers or sermons, which almost made you believe in this Easter story.