Over many years I have attended three performances of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion given by Aberdeen Bach Choir. The first was directed by the late James Lobban, the second by Graham Wiseman and now, the latest and by far the best, Peter Parfitt’s adventurous and inspired realisation which used the original German text. Although a number of good English versions exist, notably the one used in the famous recording conducted by Reginald Jacques and featuring Kathleen Ferrier, the German version fits the rhythm, phrasing and stresses of the music as Bach himself imagined it. I have always thought too that the sounds of the words are an integral part of the music itself so congratulations to the Bach Choir in managing to present this version so convincingly.
To begin with, and thinking back to the Kathleen Ferrier version which was a special favourite in my early years, I was not sure that I would enjoy a countertenor in this role, but it did not take long for Michael Chance’s beautifully contoured shaping of his music to win me over completely. His carefully managed crescendos in Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin! - was but one small example of his felicitous matching of technique to Bach’s music.
Other peripheral factors in the performance contributed greatly to its success. Having the organ continuo placed centrally was beneficial and I liked the idea of having the instrumental soloists stand for their performances. It let us know who was playing and I suspect added to the sound as well. Oh, and by the way the programmes were fabulous. The colour coding of the text made so much of the structure of the work instantly clear and Peter Parfitt’s notes were superbly informative as well.
Right from the opening chorus, it was obvious that this was going to be an epic performance. Not one but two choirs or three including the lovely fresh sound of the Girl’s Choir of St Margaret’s School even if they perhaps lacked the more penetrative sound that a boys’ choir would have made. (Ok, there isn’t one available currently in Aberdeen)
Two orchestras as well – and they were supplied by Aberdeen Sinfonietta. They gave us two strong and perfectly balanced orchestras, the first led by Bryan Dargie, the second by Dirk Van Loon. Two excellent continuo keyboardists as well - Christopher Monks was absolutely fabulous on chamber organ and Drew Tulloch excellent on harpsichord.
I was impressed by the fine contribution of the choruses throughout the work, the dramatic outbursts, the beautifully sung chorales and the final chorus was possibly their very best drawing smiles of approval and enjoyment from the soloists.
Now for the soloists themselves – the eruption of applause from the audience when the Evangelist Nicholas Mulroy came to take his bow said it all. What an absolutely brilliant performance – a beautiful voice perfectly suited to the music and the dramatic expressiveness of his singing brought the text to life in a way that few if any other performers could have done.
The other soloist to whom Bach gives a large share of the work is Christus sung with warmth and dignity throughout by Henry Waddington. I have already mentioned the marvellous musicality and detailed expressiveness of the countertenor Michael Chance and his singing was matched in refinement by soprano Emma Kirkby, similar in tone but much more carefully detailed than the excellent Elsie Suddaby on my old recording.
Bach requires another tenor and bass to sing the contemplative arias and I doubt if we could have had better than Malcolm Bennett and Alex Ashworth. I particularly loved Ashworth’s Am Abend and Mach dich, mein Herze, far better in German than one unfortunate English translation which read “Let me lay no more in sin”.
Other than in recordings it is unusual to find a line-up of soloists so well matched in quality and this includes the contributions of the character parts played by members of the Bach Choir, absolutely no second raters here!
When I first heard a recording of the St Matthew Passion I thought of it as a colossal choral work but what is truly amazing about it is that so much of it is on a small, even tiny scale. What made these parts of the work really special was the contribution of the instrumental soloists. They were all superb but to avoid simply making a long list, here is special mention of the very best: Bryan Dargie (violin), Gareth John (cello), Margaret Preston (flute) and Geoffrey Bridge (oboe).
Last but not least congratulations are due on so many levels to Peter Parfitt. As one person more expert on such matters than I remarked, Peter not only conducts well without any fuss but he also knows when not to conduct and that surely is the mark of a true maestro!
Review contributed by Alan Cooper