The Organ

Bach: St Matthew Passion

The Elgar Chorale
Worcester Cathedral
19th March 2005

The Elgar Chorale celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and the Easter performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion - in German - was an excellent example not only of their work over that time but of the exciting connections that have grown up between themselves and Cape Town. Though Donald Hunt will conduct the other concerts in this celebratory year, this Passion was conducted by Barry Smith, Organist and Master of the Choristers at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, who brought with him an exciting clutch of new young professional singers.

It was difficult to believe that Christopher Ainslie was making his debut in Britain. His lyrical counter-tenor was a joy throughout, finely focussed, creating sensitive phrasing and emotionally involved without any hints of romanticism. A real delight - yet hardly more so than the rest of the soloists. Heidemarie Lübbe brings a sense of authority to the soprano parts which hints at a more romantic understanding without ever giving in to sentiment. Vuyani Mlinde is a bass in a thousand - tough, virile and seemingly bottomless - yet with all the sensitivity to diction and phrasing which Bach demands. It was a pity so much of his music was cut.

Allan Clayton is that unusual phenomenon - a treble who makes an equally fine tenor. His powerful voice easily fills the cathedral and was mellifluous throughout. Wilhelm Theunissen took a positive, dramatic approach to the Evangelist - at times making it seem more like the St John than the Matthew Passion. With the cuts he became ever more important to support the continuity which he managed with aplomb. He was ably partnered by Alan Fairs as a noble Christus.

The Elgar Chorale was at its best in the sections for full chorus where its bite and edge were to the fore. In the split sections it often lacked authority even though its musical line was well supported and entries were clean. Barry Smith's tempi were brisk and workmanlike - occasionally catching out some members of the Elgar Camerata, although they produced some very fine soloists and a pleasing ensemble.

Donald Hunt was almost unseen at the organ console on the left of the platform but added necessary weight at key moments as well as strengthening the harmony. With the lack of a second organ he shared the continuo work with David Brookshaw's sensitive harpsichord continuo playing.

Performing this work in an evening is always a problem. In length it is comparable to Wagner and even a 7.00pm start is really too late. The only solution is to cut it and this will always offend someone. The decision here was to cut choruses and some da capos. I would have preferred to hear less of the Evangelist and more of the meatier music - particularly with such good soloists available - but that is a quibble when the overall standard was as pleasing as this and as musically convincing. We can look forward to more music on Saturday 14 May in All Saints, Worcester, which will include Donald Hunt's own Hymnus Paschalis and on Monday 8 August when they will give the premiere of Howard Blake's Songs of Truth and Glory as part of this summer's Three Choirs Festival.