Melbourne Bach Choir: St Matthew Passion

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Published: 1st May, 2019
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There is always anticipation of an event such as the presentation of a work of such significance as this. At a time when J.S. Bach’s reputation was all but forgotten, a young Mendelssohn examined the score of this work, and this persuaded him of its transcendent nature, and of the need to review Bach’s contribution to music. At a time when we now regard J.S. Bach as one of the most significant parents of our music, the idea of him once needing to be rescued from neglect seems unthinkable.

Melbourne turned out in force for this – the event was sold out well before, and it was instructive to hear the excitement in the foyer prior. No corporate boxes, no society seizing a fashion – just passionate music lovers who knew exactly what they were coming to.

Conductor Rick Prakhoff led the two orchestras, soloists and large choral ensemble, and it is clear that his vision for the performance, and prior knowledge of the work richly informed the whole presentation. His conductor notes in the program were a most appreciated feature too. The full text of the work was also presented, and most people availed themselves of the opportunity to follow this intently, enhancing their appreciation of both the detail in the musical setting of the writing, and also the performance.

Because this is a setting of the Gospel of St Matthew – with interspersions from C.F.H Picander – the story is essentially told in past tense, but with the illustrative quotes in present tense, so the Evangelist sets a tone, and the soloists and chorus are thrown into stark relief as they present vignettes of the action. This device heightens the dramatic effect of the piece, and is one of the fundamental ways in which a Passion differs from other musical storytelling such as opera, where the narrative is usually linear and in the present tense.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin as the Evangelist had the lion’s share of the work here. His expressive range and clarity were more than enough to maintain interest throughout. The role is also challenging vocally, with many lengthy phrases, and all of this was met with the beauty of Goodwin’s subtle nuance, revealing an enviable technique.

Bass Jud Arthur sang the role of Jesus, and his expressive range was most welcome here. The other roles here were presented by soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, tenor Michael Smallwood, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman and bass-baritone James Emerson. All were models of clarity, and the vocal gymnastics occasionally required by Bach’s word painting were beautifully handled.

Speaking of challenges bordering on the virtuosic, it was also interesting to note that within the orchestral textures, there were moments where high levels of skill in instrumental technique were required, and shown – though never consciously for show – always for musical effect in the service of the setting of the text.

One is in awe of the level of detail maintained in Bach’s treatment of the material throughout the two and a half hours of the work. For example, the chorale “O Haupt voll blut und wunden” appears several times through the piece, and it is fascinating to notice the changes in harmony shading the chorale differently as the dramatic context changes around it.

The two orchestras gave ample support and setting for the whole, and though there was occasional evidence of the need for a little more preparation, overall, the audience’s enjoyment was focused on the sheer willingness of the ensemble to make a beautiful sound. The use of some period instruments here was a source of delight. While often these have softer voices than their modern counterparts, they also have quite different tone colours – the reeds actually speak a different vowel shape, for example – and the audience’s enjoyment of the Viola da Gamba and Oboi d’Amore was quite noticeable. Less obvious to the audience – but known to this writer – is the indispensable contribution of the two continuo sections: the keyboard and cello combination that holds together baroque ensembles. Here the work was seamlessly supported by Calvin Bowman, Natasha Kramer, Donald Nicolson and Gemma Kneale.

The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was an ideal space for this performance – it is so very willing an accomplice in projecting every sound of these voices and acoustic instruments to our ears, and from the subtlest of solo lines to the richness of full orchestral and choral textures, the effect was both warm and clear throughout.

Originally written to be presented on Good Friday in 1727, we connected with history, participating in the work on Good Friday in 2019. Organisations such as Melbourne Bach Choir are doing extraordinary work with the very minimum of financial support, and amazing levels of goodwill. It is to be hoped that some level of philanthropy can be found to bolster their position in Melbourne music making.

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Peter Hurley attended Bach’s St Matthew Passion presented by Melbourne Bach Choir at the Melbourne Recital Centre Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on April 19, 2019.