There are few better ways to celebrate Easter than with a performance of JS Bach's St Matthew Passion, particularly when given by the forces of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, convened under Sir John Eliot Gardiner and on the final leg of the first half of their European tour. The St Matthew Passion was first performed in 1727 and the text was sown together by the poet Picander, one of JS's most frequent collaborators, a combination of direct biblical text and Picander's own verse. It is now one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire, a formidable piece whose liturgical and dramatic elements can be difficult at times to marry together – Bach was ordered to avoid the theatrical and his skirting of this rule to create the Passion is a wonder. It is a lengthy work, coming to approximately three hours, and as with any such work, however great, there is always a risk that attention may wander. That was far from the case this evening.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the St Matthew Passion is, in popular parlance, akin to Mary Berry whipping up a Victoria sponge; a decent one can be done half asleep, but with full attention given, something unique and mystical is created. He knows the score backwards and this ease was obvious in the simultaneous control he maintained and in the freedom he gave his soloists. Large, expressive gestures conveyed the greater meaning of the piece and held the performance together, whilst allowing his singers to bring individuality and a deeper meaning to each scene. In allowing his forces space to breathe, Gardiner wrought an expansive reading of the score that unlocked the deep pathos of the work – the suffering of the Passion.

The Monteverdi Choir sang the performance without sheet music, an impressive feat that added an element of spontaneity and directness with the audience which heightened the poignancy of the text. Theatrically, of course, the effect was also enhanced by removing a concert hall prop and giving greater ease to the imagination. Their singing struck a perfect balance between the contemplative and the dramatic; unanimously superb diction and fine pronunciation reached the rear of the Barbican without being distorted. Soloists stepped into the centre to sing their arias before rejoining the choir.

Amongst the soloists, the tour de force was surely the tenor Mark Padmore, singing the Evangelist, a part with which he is extensively familiar. To say he was impressive is a significant understatement; with a beautiful clarion top, he sang with an austere, lyric beauty that never tired. His singing raised the performance to the highest levels. The bass-baritone Stephan Loges gave us a Christus that was more human than divine, singing with a rich melancholy that occasionally suffered ever so slightly from clouded diction.

Alex Ashworth made an impression as Peter, bringing a dramatically frantic urgency to his denials of Christ with a strident bass. The soprano Hannah Morrison was unfaltering in her solos, holding an clear line and showing a gleaming higher register. Reginald Mobley's countertenor soared lightly in plain devotional tones, but his vibrato was not to my taste. Ashley Riches when singing the High Priest gave a grave and characterful performance with whispers of malice; effects such as these from almost all the soloists gave a welcome dramatic element to the piece.

Gardiner recruited the Trinity Boys Choir for this performance; they sang with pleasing enthusiasm and were not overwhelmed by the surrounding voices. The English Baroque Soloists were on top form throughout the entire performance; Bach gives several obbligati that were played brilliantly and particularly impressive was oboist Michael Niesemann's accompaniment in “Ich will bei meinem Jesu”. Gardiner and his performers showed that familiarity in no way breeds the ordinary; the spirituality of the performance was not easily shaken and they richly deserved the standing ovation given at the end of a long, but never dull evening.