Easter wouldn't be complete without a performance of the St Matthew Passion, Johann Sebastian Bach's epic and intense interpretation of the crucifixion. Composed in 1729, the piece sets chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven of the Gospel of St Matthew to beautiful baroque music, and despite being originally created for church performance, its dramatic double chorus parts and beautiful arias and duets have led to it becoming a popular concert piece. For those of us lucky enough to live up north, a performance of the work at Leeds Town Hall, conducted by Simon Wright and featuring Leeds Festival Chorus, a host of accomplished soloists and the Northern Sinfonia, provided the perfect opportunity to hear this wonderful musical re-telling of 'the greatest story ever told.'

Hamelin © Sim Canetty Clarke
Hamelin
© Sim Canetty Clarke

An appearance at Leeds Town Hall by the Northern Sinfonia always generates excitement. Not only are they a popular and extremely accomplished northern-based chamber orchestra, but their size and sound are perfectly suited to the venue. They have a sensitive and emotional style of playing which never fails to combine beautifully with the 170-strong Leeds Festival Chorus, for whom the full bodied St Matthew Passion, with its demand for a large chorus, is a perfect piece.

Always highly praised for their diction and dynamic range, they used both to full effect on Saturday night, interpreting the dramatic and emotional aspects of the story extremely well. They have great volume control, which was employed during the evening to create a range of different atmospheres- from soft and mournful ('Be near me, Lord, when dying') to earth-shatteringly powerful ('Let Him be crucified!'). Throughout the entirety of the piece, they seemed to be drawing on their dramatic as well as vocal skills, attacking the intensity of 'Thou that destroyest the Temple of God' with gusto, but drawing out the heartbreaking sadness of 'We bow our heads in tears and sorrow' during the final double chorus part with equal flair.

All of the soloists were impressive. New Zealand-born bass baritone Paul Whelan brought a dark, brooding intensity to the role of Christus, which culminated towards the end of the piece in a powerful, anguished 'Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani?' ('My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?'). He was well supported by James Gilchrist as the Evangelist, whose light tenor was perfectly suited to the extensive, tuneful recitatives.

Sophie Bevan made a welcome return to Leeds Town Hall (she appeared with Leeds Festival Chorus and the Northern Sinfonia for their performance of Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor in January) and performed her solo arias with a gentle beauty. Her soprano/alto duet with accomplished countertenor Robin Blaze was particularly wonderful and their voices blended together seamlessly throughout one of the most typically baroque parts of the piece. The most compelling soloist of the evening, however, was tenor Andrew Staples. A former choral scholar at King's College Cambridge, Staples has an extensive concert repertoire and has performed operatic roles at the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. His voice is pure and clear and he sang the beautiful, florid tenor arias of the work with what seemed like comfortable ease.

As the Saint Matthew Passion neared its end, the four aria soloists joined the choir for the last magnificent and moving recitative 'And now the Lord to rest is laid' before the opening musical themes of the work returned and the final double chorus part brought the piece to an emotional and moving close. The Northern Sinfonia's mournful strings sounded extremely evocative and beautiful beneath the final vocal line, 'Saviour blest, slumber on Thy Father's breast', and created a potent reminder of the Easter story. The appreciative applause that followed proved that Leeds Festival Chorus and the Northern Sinfonia continue to be a winning combination, and that the St Matthew Passion is definitely an Easter treat not to be missed.