Bach’s St Matthew Passion stages a grim truth: human communities can be bound together by both unimaginable cruelty and penitential, reparative mourning, placing a finger on the scales that balance our capacities for viciousness and valediction. English Touring Opera’s St Matthew Passion explores community first and foremost. The chorales that punctuate the narrative of Christ’s suffering were originally sung by the audience for the passion itself. Here ETO present them in English, a gesture imbuing them with a special moral urgency and evangelical zeal. The translations themselves are newly commissioned and provided by a professionally diverse set: mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, former Archbishop Rowan Williams, academic and critic Daisy Black, and Rowena Pailing and Samuel Hudson from Blackburn Cathedral. And in each touring venue ETO’s musicians and soloists will collaborate with local amateur choirs: here the Collegium Musicum of London Chamber Choir with children’s voices from Holy Trinity and St Silas Primary School. At final tally the tour will work with 28 musical groups across the country.

Collegium Musicum Choir © Robert Workman
Collegium Musicum Choir
© Robert Workman

ETO’s performances are conceived as site-specific, and the arrangement at Temple Church gives us Bach up close and personal. Much of the dramatic action takes place in the middle of the audience, with soloists moving amongst the audience and orchestra as the narrative unfolds, and making use of the architecture itself: Pilate – arch, distant and imperious in a characterful presentation from Andrew Slater – confronted Christ from the pulpit.  

The performance also takes the unusual step of dividing the role of Evangelist amongst multiple soloists, which risks narrative discontinuity but does a powerful case for the communal character of the storytelling, and the two tenors, Richard Dowling and John-Colyn Gyeantey, told the story with steely assurance and verve. 

There is a rawness to the musical delivery that is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. Jonathan Peter Kenny is a conductor who pulls every note and phrase out of the musicians of the Old Street Band: it is not always pretty, and he is not someone taking us through the score with placid, divine detachment, but it is utterly committed and compelling to watch. It was also very fast, with the one of the most urgent first parts I’ve ever heard. This heightens the musical and dramatic immediacy, and gives what might be the more inward and reflective arias a searching and restless quality. The price of this forward momentum is some of the internal tension of the work, which balances narrative thrust with personal reflection and choric affirmation of faith. 

There were some rough musical edges: a truculent viola de gamba in “Komm, Süßes Kreuz”, and a violin obbligato in “Erbarme Dich” which seemed to physically grapple with their lines, emphasising textural diversity over purity of sound and, at points, intonation, although it was certainly consistent with the emotional directness of the performance as a whole. Woodwind tunings didn’t always behave either, but there were glorious sequences too: the pair of oboe di caccia in “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand” delivered the requisite burnished darkness. 

Jonathan Peter Kenny conducting the Old Street Band and Collegium Musicum Choir © Robert Workman
Jonathan Peter Kenny conducting the Old Street Band and Collegium Musicum Choir
© Robert Workman

Temple Church and the immersive approach to the performance makes for a compromised (and sometimes unflattering) acoustic reality, which has some obvious downsides – unfocused reverberations and foggy text from soloists who aren’t right next to you – but some virtues too: the performance uniquely inhabits the space you share with the audience, feeling live and variegated and theatrical in quite a unique way. You are keenly that we are all experiencing the same show quite differently, but sharing the experience nonetheless. And it is an acoustic that enhances the warmth in Bach’s orchestration, particularly the luminescent middle register that The Old Street Band blended to perfection in “Mache Dich” amongst others. 

ETO has assembled a strong cast, with ample opportunities to shine in both the sharing of the Evangelist’s role and the their participation in the choruses and chorales. Frederick Long’s Christus was noble and determined, with a bright upper register and keen sense of pathos, a Christus in touch with his vulnerable humanity, in both aria and recitative. Occasionally Christus was shared with alto Katie Bray, though this idea seemed to be dropped by the end and never quite convinced, defusing the psychological drama rather than broadening it. Nonetheless Bray was one of the outstanding voices of the evening, plangent and impassioned in “Ach! nun ist mein Jesus hin!”. 

Countertenor Benjamin Williamson sang “Erbarme Dich” with heart-stopping beauty and intensity, with exquisitely controlled vibrato and shading. Andrew Slater was a well-studied Pilate, Judas, and  Caiaphas, with plenty of dynamic characterisation and an uneasy “Gerne will ich mich bequemen”. Collegium Musicum were vivid and alarming in the big dramatic sequences: rarely have I heard “Barrabam!” sung with such gleeful cruelty. 

***11