March 2012: St Matthew Passion

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 31 March 2012, 7.30pm

Stephen Bell

The magnificent surroundings of Exeter Cathedral provided an inspiring venue for Exeter Festival Chorus’ performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion last Saturday evening. Despite the size of the building, conductor Nigel Perrin and his performers ensured a moving, surprisingly intimate occasion, notwithstanding the use of Bach’s original German language text.

The authenticity was enhanced by the period–instrument orchestra Music for Awhile, led by Margaret Faultless, its small size perfectly capable of carrying in the expanse of the nave, whilst ensuring that the choir and soloists were able to sing quietly and expressively in this most moving of sacred works. The demanding instrumental solos were performed most skilfully, technique serving the music at all times. The continuo group, frequently the unsung heroes, received deserved applause at the end for their skill in keeping the music on the move.

Despite last-minute changes on account of illness, all the soloists delivered Bach’s difficult melodic lines with great skill and commitment. In particular the Evangelist, Nathan Vale, carried the story with complete conviction, in such a way that one was able to follow it with little reference to the translation in the programme. Stephen Varcoe, booked to sing the bass arias and take the part of Pilate, also took on the role of Jesus. Fortunately he was fully familiar with both parts and the remaining bass sections were convincingly sung by Exeter Cathedral lay-clerk Julian Rippon, at only two hours’ notice. The soprano and alto soloists, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Rupert Enticknap both sang with great intelligence and sensitivity. All the soloists deserve praise for their engagement with the audience in the long cathedral nave.

Exeter Festival Chorus deserves its reputation as a fine choir, and confirmed it in their command of the music, German text and attention to expressive detail. Their large dynamic range was enhanced with meticulous shaping of the phrasing in the numerous chorales and emotive commitment in the crowd scenes. The balance between parts was generally excellent, although they took a little time to settle in the opening chorus.

The St Matthew Passion is a very long work, so it was not surprising that Nigel Perrin decided to make some judicious cuts, in particular early in Part One, before the Last Supper music. On balance, as with the use of the original German, it was the correct decision, proving that in a concert performance, as opposed to a liturgical setting on Good Friday, these are viable options.

Huge credit must be given to everyone involved for the great attention to detail in this performance, not only the musicians but also those responsible for making sure that the audience could see as well as hear the soloists.

If one were to offer any criticism, the speed and almost joyful style of the final chorus did not quite fit its sombre, reflective text. Nevertheless, congratulations to all for a truly memorable evening at the beginning of Holy Week, and in particular to Nigel Perrin whose clear, unfussy direction and profound understanding of the music was evident throughout.