Any venue, cathedral or concert hall, that advertises a Good Friday performance of J.S. Bach’s epic St Matthew Passion is likely to sell out; even Birmingham’s vast Symphony Hall is no exception, today being full to bursting with eager parishioners making their annual pilgrimage to wallow in Bach’s all-consuming musical ministry. Traditionally Good Friday passion performances begin un-applauded in order to set the tone of pious reverence due to both the day and the music, but today Ex Cathedra director Jeffrey Skidmore took to the podium, acknowledged audience applause and, following a moment of silence, began the heavy, grief-laden introduction. Despite the advertised lengthy interval (suggesting the performance would finish late-evening), I was confident that the days of Klemperer-esque performances that made sure you suffered along with Christ by wringing out every semiquaver of anguish in five or six hours of solemn misery were long gone, and Skidmore presented a reasonably steady tempo much more sympathetic to Bach’s pulsating, rhythmic intensity.

Ex Cathedra © M.A.M. Management
Ex Cathedra
© M.A.M. Management

The performance began with confident mourning and a clarity that is happily associated with the Ex Cathedra Choir’s excellent choral blend, richness of tone and youthful freshness of interpretation – many of the chorus, orchestra and all of the soloists in this performance were young artists, and the choir’s contribution throughout was sterling with well-balanced, solemn chorales, dramatic intensity in passages of interjection regarding Pilate, and a generally polished choral finesse.

Tenor Jeremy Budd was our Evangelist and his oration assumed various degrees of success – Bach’s Evangelists must sustain a combination of a light, pure voice with a flawless technique that supports both excellent diction for the recitatives and a lyrical strength for the arias, coupled with a comfortable affinity for music that is mercilessly written at the top end of the tenor register. Budd’s performance was strong – a mature voice with a focused and assured technique, though towards the end of Part 1 elements of fatigue were evident and the voice did not make a full recovery for Part 2 but nonetheless the intensity of conviction and understanding were excellent. Similarly Themba Mvula’s Jesus (the only soloist not to be drawn from the chorus) possessed a good voice with a particularly warm middle register, but strained at the top and inaudible in the depths. In his defence, however, Symphony Hall is not an ideal venue for such intimate music and Bach’s part for Jesus is the passive innocent victim, rather than an aggressive defendant. Remaining soloists Greg Skidmore, Grace Davidson, Katie Trethewey, Martha McLorinan and William Gaunt all sang with well developed voices, tackling Bach’s taxing phrases and unforgiving rhythmic challenges with confidence. But there were many moments where I wanted their interpretations to leave the hushed cloisters of devotional prayer and assume the frenzied arena of the stage so that their performances might have been more dramatically convincing in relating the story, rather than just singing nicely – heads were also too often in scores.

Two outstanding soloists in particular raised the level of performance – countertenor Matthew Venner and tenor Samuel Boden. Venner, trained in the English choral tradition by being both a former chorister and choral scholar, possesses a crystal-clear countertenor voice very much in the English style of James Bowman and Robin Blaze, and his numerous solo opportunities reached their climax in an emotionally draining rendition of Alto I’s bitter aria “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy, Lord, on me”), which best emphasised Venner’s remarkable vocal control. Boden’s contribution, though brief as Tenor II receives few solo opportunities save for one recitative and aria, was easily the best of the entire performance. Boden’s vocal strength across the whole tenor register with a resonant top and firm bottom equipped him well for his aria, the rhythmic nightmare “Geduld, wenn mich falchen Zungen stechen” (“Endure through lies and taunts and slander”), and his performance, the most dramatically convincing, was in his eyes as much as in his voice.

The Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra were a little shaky and balance was occasionally hit-and-miss, woodwind suffering most behind the strings. The most rhythmically taxing instrumental music can be found in solos for the violin, flute and viola da gamba accompanying various arias (most famously the violin solo in “Erbarme dich”), and Margaret Faultless was an excellent leader whose solos were well prepared and emotionally engaging. My sympathy overflows for viola da gamba player Emilia Benjamin, who tackled remarkably taxing rhythmic challenges with confidence and accuracy, but there were obvious issues with tuning in one particular register, which leads me to wonder if perhaps that string was simply out of tune.

On the whole the performance was very good and suitably left us in that difficult Good Friday state of being raised up by Bach’s music, but unsatisfied by the lack of resolution – remember that on Good Friday the story is only half told...

In addition, whilst Bach passion performances are now tradition, it would be nice to hear an alternative passion setting and Ex Cathedra would be just the group to do it – perhaps C.P.E. Bach’s Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jeus, Graun’s Die Tod Jesu or even Handel’s rarely performed Brockes-Passion?

***11