St Matthew Passion - J.S. Bach
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
On a glorious spring evening with nature so full of new life, new life in the risen Christ would be celebrated later, for first comes the suffering, the ‘Passion of Christ.’ So it was that on this Palm Sunday evening a large expectant audience came together to witness the ‘Passion’ played out in St Andrew’s Church, Penrith, through the music of J S Bach setting the words according to St Matthew.
Colin Marston, conducting the Penrith Singers, some 84 strong and arranged in double choir with orchestra and soloists, paced the piece so well throughout. In itself a considerable achievement as we move constantly from chorus to recitative to aria, as the drama unfolds. The opening chorus sets the scene: ‘Look on Him. For love of us he himself his cross is bearing.’
So much depends on the Evangelist who narrates the drama throughout in recitative. Richard Pollock (tenor) sang with a clarity so necessary so that the listener was drawn into the story and he used his voice effectively to express particular critical moments in the narrative - of Peter denying Christ, ‘And he went out and wept bitterly;’ of the last moments on the cross, ‘Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.’
The role of Jesus was sung admirably by Paul im Thurn, with his constant interplay in recitative with the Evangelist.
The chorus frequently joins in the drama, usually in short passages and the choir entered into the spirit of it such as in the crowd scene with Pilate, ‘Let him be crucified,’ ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’ and in mocking him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews.’ But then, as pauses for reflection, they clearly enjoyed singing the harmonies of the chorales.
Also as pauses for thoughtful reflection are the arias for the four soloists. The first of these ‘Grief for sin rends the guilty heart within’, was sung by alto, Marion Ramsay, nicely accompanied with flutes, cello and organ continuo. It would have been good to have heard more of tenor, Adam Magee, who just had the one opportunity to sing, a recitative followed by the aria ‘I would beside my Lord be watching,’ interspersed with chorus and accompanied by oboe, cello and organ continuo. How I enjoyed Oliver Dunn (bass) in ‘Give O give me back my Lord’ with his sure full voice. He also fulfilled the role of Pilate. For me, commenting on the story at the close of the Last Supper scene, the aria, ‘I wish my heart to offer thee,’ with oboe, bassoon, cello and continuo is exquisite and was sung beautifully, and with conviction, by Rachel Little (soprano).
For the evening to be a success in its spirituality as well as its musicality, all must be engaged fully in the performance. Indeed, holding the whole together so competently along with conductor, Colin Marston, was Ian Hare, organ continuo. But all played their part in making this a meaningful beginning to Holy Week, not least those individual members of the choir who sang minor roles: Phoebe Power, Stephanie Chadwick, Heather Tomlinson, Alistair Harper, Charles Ritchie and Michael Turnbull.