Orpheus Choir triumphs with the St Matthew Passion

JS BACH – St. Matthew Passion

Paul McMahon – Evangelist; Michael Leighton-Jones – Jesus; Jenny Wollerman – soprano; Claire Barton – alto; Andrew Grenon – tenor; Daniel O’Connor – bass
Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul; Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Douglas Mews – continuo / Robert Oliver – viola da gamba
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Michael Fulcher – conductor

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday, 10th April, 2011, 6.30pm

From a mere listener’s point of view I invariably approach the prospect of attending a performance of Bach’s most monumental undertaking with keen anticipation tempered by feelings of mild anxiety. The work always astonishes with its capacity (as observed by the redoubtable Professor Frederick Page, quoted in the program notes) to furnish “a glimpse into eternity”; though performances can sometimes suggest eternity in more uncomfortably temporal ways, more especially in church settings where the seating seems designed for the infliction of on-going penance upon listeners, ahead of repose and solace. I’m therefore happy to report that this was a performance whose beauties, energies and overall focus made for an enjoyable and involving musical experience throughout.

Michael Fulcher’s direction of the work’s ebb and flow seemed to me a key element – in his hands the music unfolded with a naturalness of utterance that enabled the music’s essential character at any given moment to shine forth to its advantage. There were two or three moments that I felt worked less well than they might, but in the overall scheme so much seemed right, that our engagement in what was being played and sung never faltered. The work’s very opening, ‘Komm, ihr Töchter’, was splendidly launched by both orchestra and choir, Fulcher’s lilting direction enlivening the lines and textures while encouraging from the musicians plenty of pointed phrasing, the sound-picture both focused and beautifully transparent. Only in the difficult Aria for Alto and Chorus ‘Ach! nun ist mein Jesus hin!’ that opens the second part did I catch a sense of things being slightly out-of-sync, the music’s different elements working hard to try and gell, the various dove-tailings of the lines a truly precarious business.

Above all, there’s a story being told by this music, and in this respect the performance delivered splendidly – I thought the Evangelist Paul McMahon excellent in his dramatic focus, so alive to the text’s possibilities and so fluent a technique as to do his interpretation full justice. The other soloists, including several from the body of the choir taking minor but still significant roles, played their part in realizing the drama and pathos of the story. Perhaps not as visceral and graphic as the exchanges in Bach’s other great Passion, that of St.John, these nevertheless came resoundingly alive throughout the recitatives, giving us a real sense of the work’s inexorable progress towards that mystical fusion of death and fulfillment that accompanies godly sacrifice in Christian and non-Christian cultures alike.

Each of the soloists “entered” his or her roles in complete accord with the proceedings – soprano Jenny Wollerman, though over-tremulous of voice in places, brought her dramatic instincts marvellously to bear in episodes such as her recitative ‘Er hat uns allen wohl getan’ and aria ‘Aus Liebe’, whose sequence, together with some beautiful wind-playing at the beginning made a truly affecting impression. I was also much taken with the voice of the alto, Claire Barton, whose bright, slightly plangent tone-quality gave life and meaning to her utterances, despite some slightly ungainly moments in passagework here and there – obviously a voice to listen out for in years to come. Right from her opening recitative ‘Du Lieber Heiland du’, leading into the aria ‘Buß und Reu’, her tones struck the lines squarely and resonantly, to memorable effect, again supported by on-the-spot instrumental duetting and continuo playing (flutes and solo ‘cello).

Of the men, baritone Michael Leighton-Jones, long-time resident in Australia, made a welcome return to Wellington as a sonorous, dignified Jesus, never over-playing the drama (as befits the role’s god-like dignity of utterance), but often touching this listener with the resonant simplicity of his tones, emphasizing the text’s and music’s humanity and vulnerability. Promising performances came from his two younger colleagues, tenor Andrew Grenon, and bass Daniel O’Connor, each of whom had taxing arias to grapple with, and in both cases emerging with considerable credit. Despite the occasionally strained note, Grenon took to his recitative ‘O Schmerz!’ and aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ with real commitment, making something truly heartfelt out of ‘Er solo vor fremden Raub bezahlen’, and bringing real “point” to his interaction with the choir throughout both recitative and aria. I loved the vivid “plodding” quality of the accompaniment to Grenon’s recitative ‘Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille’, the combination of organ and viola da gamba here and throughout the aria most affecting.

Daniel O’Connor did well negotiating Michael Fulcher’s urgent speeds during the bass aria Gerne will ich mich bequemen, after delivering a well-rounded and sonorous recitative ‘Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder’; and again survived the bluster of a spanking pace for ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder!’
He demonstrated a fine feel for line during all of his recitatives, relishing the beautiful Vivaldi-like pictorial writing for both voice and instruments of ‘Am Abend, da es kühle war’ (a kind of Bachian ‘In the cool, cool,cool of the evening…’!), even if both soloist and orchestra struggled a bit with the ensuing aria ‘Mache ditch, mien Herze, rein’, trying to do justice to the syncopated figures and getting a just voice/instrumental balance. Of the solo voices from the choir, special mention needed to be made of Kieran Rayner’s true-toned Pontius Pilate, and Thomas Barker’s angst-ridden Peter, the disciple who denied his Master three times.

True-toned and eagerly responsive throughout, the Orpheus Choir sang like angels, whether divided into two antiphonal groups or en masse, completely at one with Michael Fulcher’s overall conception of the music. At first I thought the more dramatic choral interjections were going to lack sufficient urgency and bite, as with the choir’s contributions to the soprano and alto duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, but the immediately subsequent ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ had all the vehemence one could want, as did the accusatory cries of ‘Er ist des Todes schuldig!’ in response to Kieran Raynor’s vengeful High Priest. Elsewhere, the voices brought just the right amalgam of radiance and gravitas to the chorales, as exemplified by the wonderful ‘Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe!’ in the “Jesus before Pilate” section of the work; and a winning tenderness to the exchanges with the soloists in the penultimate recitative ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht’. It was fitting that, in tandem with the orchestra, the choir had the last say, delivering the words with the same focus, fervor and vocal splendor with which the same voices had begun the journey a couple of hours before. Contributing with bright, bell-like tones to the choral sonorities as well were the Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, dressed as for a church service, and contrasting as such with the secular severity of the main choir’s black attire.

Yet another bastion of the performance was the Vector Wellington Orchestra, its playing for Michael Fulcher unfailingly stylish and characterful, whether from the groupings of strings spread across two antiphonally-placed orchestras or among the various combination of winds whose tones enlivened many a texture along the way. Further interest was generated by fine solo continuo playing from both ‘cellist Paul Mitchell and viola da gamba specialist Robert Oliver (though the conductor’s rapid tempo for the bass aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ resulted in Robert Oliver’s viola da gamba accompaniment sounding uncharacteristically breathless). Organist Douglas Mews as well contributed unfailingly secure support in the continuo role. In sum, the performance was of a concerted splendour, with the music-making’s refulgent glow warming hearts and satisfying intellects alike – an achievement of which the Orpheus Choir and its various cohorts can, in my opinion, be justly proud.

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