With such a star-studded line-up at a concert that had been sold out for weeks, this was always going to be an evening to remember. Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of those iconic pieces that never gets old, and every time I hear the throbbing bass of the opening chorus, I still get a tingle of excitement. Composed between 1725 and 1727, and with numerous revivals by Bach and, of course, Mendelssohn in 1829, the work that has evolved to become today’s concert version is a multifaceted piece covering the story of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial, as related in the Gospel of St Matthew. This is augmented by the accompanied recitatives and arias with texts by the Leipzig poet Picander, and the familiar hymn-like tunes of the chorales, which relate the drama in familiar terms. These different levels are managed (and occasionally merged, as in the opening chorus) to great effect and the result is a wonderfully moving, uplifting, and musically scrumptious experience.

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge © Benjamin Eagolvea
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge
© Benjamin Eagolvea

The world famous Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, was augmented by children from the West London Free School, who provided the chorale tunes in lusty voice in the opening and closing choruses of Part 1. For the other choral numbers, we were treated to the angelic voices of the King’s College choristers, famous for their annual Christmas Day broadcast and providing a beautifully innocent edge to the commentary. Their freely flowing chorales and dramatic interjections added warmth and drama to the story and this, combined with the rich tones of the period instruments used by the Academy of Ancient Music, set the whole audience up for an evening of wonderful music-making in the packed Hall One of Kings Place.

Tonight’s Evangelist was one of my personal heroes, James Gilchrist, and he was certainly on top form. With a style of recitative singing in which the music truly is subservient to the text, he narrated the entire tale with breathtaking ease. The role is almost unrelenting, technically challenging and extremely high in places, and is entirely recitative, so there isn’t even a tuneful aria to really get your teeth into – however, he was completely engaging and made so much sense of the words that the detailed translation was hardly necessary. The tenor arias in tonight’s performance were taken by Thomas Walker, who unfortunately, when directly compared to Gilchrist’s easy top range, sounded occasionally tight, although he had impressive diction and power throughout the range.

Gilchrist was joined in his narration by David Wilson-Johnson as Christ, whose rich baritone voice added an air of solemnity to the text. The cello accompaniment to the recitative sections made Christ’s plight especially moving, with the sonorous tones of the original Baroque instruments and Wilson-Johnson’s velvety voice combining to fill the Hall with wonderful music. The accompanimental forces were varied throughout, which made for a rich and constantly changing instrumental texture. The woodwind section were absolutely sublime in the alto aria “Buß und Reu” of Part 1, rather outshining soloist James Laing. However, his delicate countertenor matched Joanne Lunn’s pure soprano voice perfectly in the duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”, with fantastic interjections for the choir.

The chorus also provided some of the step-out solo passages of the minor characters, and these were managed with great maturity. The High Priests in particular were in good voice in Part 2, and the choir were suitably bloodthirsty in their “Barrabam” sections. The other highlight of the second half was the bass soloist, who doesn’t have an awful lot of stage time in theis piece, but when he did get it, Stephen Loges made the most of it: “Erbarme dich” was wonderfully controlled, with a spine-tingling solo violin opening. The other star obbligato aria of the evening was the beautiful “Blute nur”, sung by Joanne Lunn, whose voice, alongside a wonderfully phrased flute solo, was heartbreakingly simple and wonderfully effective. In fact, those words could equally sum up the whole evening’s performance. The entire work appeared deceptively simple, nothing overdone, no unnecessary trappings: simply wonderful music, played beautifully.