One of the highlights of Auckland's musical life these last few years has been the semi-regular appearances of English conductor Stephen Layton to lead the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in Bach's great choral masterworks. Previous instalments have included revelatory performances of the B Minor Mass and St John Passion and, this year, these were followed by the St Matthew Passion, the second of Bach’s two surviving Passion settings and one of the greatest works in the whole choral repertoire.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

This performance was perhaps even more nuanced than that of the St John Passion four years ago. I’d previously associated Layton with swiftness and momentum and while these attributes still featured, there was also a sense of deepening of expression in the slower arias in particular.

The massive upsurge of counterpoint and harmonic tension in the opening chorus was also thrillingly handled. In this, he was aided by the University of Auckland Chamber Choir, expertly drilled by Karen Grylls. Their smallish size and focused tones allowed for crisp differentiation of lines in that magnificent opening section, sopranos in ripieno shining like a halo above the whole ensemble. They supplied a warm, well-integrated sound for the frequent chorales and a strong sense of momentum for the short contrapuntal movements. An appropriate amount of spite was to be found in the passages in which they condemn Jesus. On the other side, the cries of “Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!” that interrupt the Part One soprano-alto duet startled, not because of any sudden volume but for their crisp enunciation and rhythmic exactitude.

The solo singing largely matched the high quality of the choral contributions. Laurence Williams is a student at Guildhall in London and a member of Stephen Layton's UK ensemble Polyphony, here showing great potential in the part of Jesus. He maintained a strong sense of gravitas for such a young singer, lavishing lush tone on his legato phrases. The Evangelist, Gwilym Bowen, was a consistently intense presence, plangent and vocally at ease even in the highest-lying sections of his part. This was the most immersed I’ve seen an Evangelist in the drama, at turns grief-stricken and desperate. Some of his vocal gestures were quite daring, such as letting his voice to almost break above the stave as he described the weeping of Peter. Yet all felt in service of the music, never detracting from it.

Sara Macliver remains an absolute musical treasure in this repertoire. A bit of tremulousness around the F at the top of the stave notwithstanding, her silvery soprano is ravishing in tone, becoming ever-more glowing as it ascends. The aria "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" was a perfect distillation of her art, the emotion palpable as she stressed Jesus’ influence in the preceding recitative. The impeccable semiquaver passages in the aria itself were imbued with deep and irreplaceable loss over the spare accompaniment. She was suitably fragile in “Blute nur”, a contrast with the strong character she gave the Pilate’s wife in her short appearance. She blended well with the more piquant mezzo tones of Helen Charlston in their duet.

For her part, Charlston was able to bring a surprising amount of vocal richness to the remarkable series of arias in the second half. She was also suitably haunting in “Erbarme dich” and displayed soul-wrenching phrasing in a particularly intense “Können Tränen”. The unusual, slightly squeezed timbre of tenor Hiroshi Amako’s voice made less impression in recitative than his colleagues, but he was able to move quickly around the fiendish semiquavers in the arias "Ich will bei meinem Jesu" and "Geduld". More baritone than bass, Michael Craddock sounded out of sorts in his low-lying first aria but was much firmer-sounding the second half, with some vivid contributions as the supplementary characters Pilate and Peter.

The orchestra responded to the deeply-felt direction with its own very expressive playing. Bach often assigns individual instruments or groups of instruments to accompany singers in their arias, giving the Auckland Philharmonia’s instrumentalists ample opportunity to shine. Among the many memorable contributions were the solo oboe in “Ich will bei meinem Jesu” which rather outshone the tenor’s contribution with his beautiful shaping of the decorative line. The cellist accompanying “Komm, süßes Kreuz” was a similarly alive presence. Playing on modern instruments gave the whole performance something of a bright sheen that paid dividends in reflective moments but didn’t quite give the many sudden modulations the thorniness they ideally require. But this is a small quibble in a performance that overall did justice to Bach’s monumental masterwork.

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