Review of St Matthew Passion, 24th March 2018

Review: York Musical Society, St Matthew Passion, York Minster, March 24

from York Press 28 March 2018

It is hard to think of what might surpass J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727) as the greatest of all sacred musical works for the Christian church. Bach never wrote an opera, but he did dramatic music nevertheless.

With a libretto by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), the St Matthew Passion is, first, a fast-moving narrative of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution and, second, a reflective piece in which soloists comment on the emotional and spiritual significance of that narrative.

It is demanding for all musicians involved: double orchestra, full choir, separate treble choir, four soloists and separate Evangelist and Jesus. Bach, guided by his devout Lutheran faith, wrote Jesus’s part in red ink in the manuscript and his recitatives are always accompanied not only by continuo but by a halo of strings.

The overall architecture of the piece was persuasively presented. Under principal conductor David Pipe, YMS made a moving and convincing spiritual drama of this challenging work, singing in English translation. Bach’s expansive opening chorus (“Come ye daughters, share my wailing”) was beautifully rendered with a Via Dolorosa tread, as was the equally demanding final chorus with its bitter-sweet discordant decorations.

Bach ends the St Matthew Passion, like the earlier St John Passion (1724), at Jesus’s death, not with his resurrection: the composer knew that much of the best in music comes from sorrow, not from triumph. But David Pipe managed to find exactly the right level of reassurance in that last chorus – “Sleep thou sweetly” – so that it did not feel like the end of the story.

Excellent obbligato playing gave the reflective arias emotional coherence and musical shape (Orchestra 2 was even more assured in the strings than Orchestra 1).

Paul Smy was an elegant, if understated Evangelist and Jonathan May a light yet moving Jesus, singing from the pulpit. The best soloist, mezzo soprano Kate Symonds-Joy, brought remarkable colour and intensity to her role, especially in the most moving of all the arias, Have Mercy, My God. The remaining aria soloists were Anita Watson (soprano), Ben Thapa (tenor) and Alex Ashworth (bass).

Pipe controlled the considerable forces required for this Baroque masterpiece with poised authority and with a sense of having fully inhabited the work. YMS is now a choir that impresses each time it performs – and in widely differing repertoire. A memorable evening.

Review by Francis O’Gorman