St Matthew Passion – JS Bach

Lent, with Good Friday just around the corner, is undoubtedly the appropriate time in the Christian calendar to sing about the Passion. Last Saturday, the Chichester Singers did just that by performing probably the greatest of all the Passion settings – J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Chichester Cathedral. The work itself is a monumental mix of recitative, taking us through the Gospel story, interspersed with chorales, arias and choruses of sublime musical beauty and feeling.

The Singers themselves were on top form from opening to closing choruses. The cathedral acoustic demands that the voices project well over the orchestra in front of them and this they did generally very well. There was a slight imbalance between Choir 1 and Choir 2 in the movements that required a double chorus but this was a minor issue compared with the overall impact of their performance. I would also have preferred less heavy orchestral input supporting the chorales – or even for them to have been sung a cappella – but this would have been difficult when attempting to maintain tight ensemble in a chorus of over a hundred.

The five soloists – James Oxley, Timothy Nelson, Rebekah Jones, Thomas Isherwood and Margaret Ravalde were all excellent. Particular mention should be made of Ms Ravalde who stepped in at the last minute to cover for illness and performed the work in English for the first time. Her duet with Rebekah Jones in So ist mein Jesus was outstanding. James Oxley was the Evangelist and he impressively sang his recitatives from memory, ably underpinned by Richard Barnes’ harpsichord continuo.

The Singers were supported by their usual orchestra, the Southern Pro Musica who performed with their reliably consummate professionalism. For me, a St Matthew Passion performance succeeds or fails on the emotional effect of the tearful Erbahme dich, and here, the orchestra’s leader, Sophie Langdon, played her violin to near perfection – wonderful. Mention should also be made of the oboeists who played their thirds sublimely in Golgotha.

The success of the whole evening sat on the shoulders of conductor Jonathan Willcocks, who directed proceedings with his usual energy and verve. This was a performance to be proud of.

Martin Richardson