Friday, 10 April 2009


To Symphony Hall, Birmingham, for the annual Good Friday performance of JS Bach's St Matthew Passion.

I'm a bit of a late-arriver as far as Bach is concerned, kept away for years by the assumption that a soft-hearted Puccini-boy such as me would have little in common with this austere northern genius.

Was I wrong!

Attracted by the fact that the Birmingham performance (a) was in the afternoon, (b) to be given in English and (c) would feature a spacious interval for tea and buns, I decided to take a chance on JSB.

That was twelve years ago. With the exception of one year, I've been back for Bach every Good Friday since.

Those first performances were by the London Bach Choir and the English Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Sir David Willcocks, for whom this was an experience of profound devotional, as well as musical. significance. The audience was asked to refrain from applause, the performance beginning and ending in silence.

These days there's clapping but, more importantly for this listener, the text is still given in English.

The Matthew Passion was created to be part of a Good Friday liturgy - it's for a congregation, rather than an audience.

At its heart is the simple delivery of St Matthew's narrative of the final hours of Jesus' life, given in clear, wonderfully expressive 'recitative' (sung speech) by the tenor in the role of the Evangelist.

A bass takes the part of Jesus, his words against the background of strings, providing a kind of musical halo.

The narration is interspersed with many choral passages, giving the onstage choirs the opportunity to take on the role of the crowds, calling for the release of Barabbas, clamoring 'Let him be crucified' and, in a moment of great beauty, offering the Centurion's words: 'Truly this was the Son of God.'

More frequently, though, the choral passages simply invite the hearer to a personal meditation on the significance of the events being played out. This invitation is extended further in six or seven 'chorales' (hymns) in which the original hearers would have joined.

Similar passages for the solo singers continue the theme of transferring these external events to the inner, spiritual world of the individual listener.

For me, the most powerful moment of the entire piece comes immediately after the words 'and he gave up his spirit' and before the opening of the hushed opening of the chorale 'Be near me, Lord, when dying': a silence - long, spacious, profound.

The work's extraordinary power is linked to this constant connecting of the outer with the inner world. History connects with my story. And every time I hear the Matthew Passion, new connections emerge, I discover new aspects. I'm always surprised.

Created for ordinary churchgoers (which meant the whole community), the St Matthew Passion is remains accessible, powerful and beautiful - and popular. I'll be back next year.

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