Passion is not for the faint-hearted. This performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion weighed in at three hours (excluding interval). However, my attention did not waver, and this seemed true of the rest of enraptured audience. When digesting Dunedin Consort director John Butt’s scholarly yet very readable programme notes beforehand, I was staggered to learn that, at just about the time our audience would be stretching its legs, the congregation at the 1727 première, would have remained seated for the pivotal part of the event: the sermon.

John Butt
John Butt

I always feel that the stunning opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (“Come, ye daughters, share my mourning”) hints at the work’s stature by sustaining a tonic pedal in the bass for the first 20 seconds before releasing the harmonic handbrake. However, Leipzig poet Picander’s text loses no time in highlighting the work’s central purpose. Lines five and six, “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig / Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet” (“O Lamb of God, unspotted / Upon the cross’s branch slaughtered”) make clear the subject matter. In this chorus, one of the few tutti moments in the work, all 23 members of Dunedin’s Orchestra 1 and Orchestra 2 joined forces with the one-to-a-part Chorus 1 and Chorus 2. What a fantastic sound!

Sparing use of instrumental colour results in additional emotional charge on its return. The opening’s combination of flutes, oboes, strings and continuo did not reappear until number 27a, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” (“Thus has my Jesus now been taken”). This duo for soprano and alto, beautifully sung by Rachel Redmond and Clare Wilkinson respectively, is spiked with alarming lines from the chorus, urgently but unsuccessfully petitioning the soldiers for Jesus’ release.

The other momentous tutti moment closes the work. “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We lay ourselves with weeping prostrate”). Concluding the tale of human dereliction, this movement was extremely moving – overpowering, really – and there were several sighs at its close and, I would bet, a few moist eyes.

Instrumental colour was supplied more locally throughout the work in the form of paired or solo obbligato parts. In the first such moment, “Du lieber Heiland du” (“Belov'd Saviour thou”) alto Clare Wilknson’s lovely voice was delicately complemented by Katy Bircher and Graham O’Sullivan on paired flutes. I was extremely impressed by Bircher’s watchful manner, eyes continually darting from music to director. Captivated by her tone and phrasing, I then noticed how impressively she alternated between leadership and following as the moment demanded.

Two violin obbligato moments stood out. In “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy, Lord”) orchestra leader Cecilia Bernardini tastefully shadowed the impressive Clare Wilkinson, who detailed Peter’s bitter regret upon betraying his friend. Live music’s ability to let the eyes inform the ears struck me here; I’d not registered before the pizzicato viols’ clearance of space for the hollowing experience of grief. The second instance of violin obbligato followed soon after. In this case, an expressive and very nimble Rebecca Livermore energised a resonant Robert Davies in the touchingly indignant bass aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” (“Give back my Jesus to me”).

Doubling on cello and viol, Alison McGillivray would have been impressive for stamina alone – physical, mental and musical. However, she also turned in a gripping obbligato in the bass aria “Komm, süßes Kreuz, so will ich sagen” (“Come, O sweet cross, thus I’ll confess it”) beautifully sung by Matthew Brook, who was also playing the role of Jesus.

Two other features of Brook’s performance struck me. The first of these concerns a dimension of the passion story which I’ve never properly registered: fear. Elements such as regret, cruelty and compassion are unmistakable. However, moments of fear in this very physical tale were put across very powerfully by Brook, specifically in the Garden of Gethsemane and the forsaken moment on the cross. The second revelation in Brook’s performance was the note of what can only (and oddly) be called optimism in the aria “Mach dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Make thyself, my heart now pure”). The tone of the final line, “Welt, geh aus, laß Jesum ein” (“World, depart, let Jesus in”) left me feeling that the mystery of faith, is probably of equal size to those within and without. Brook’s wonderful contributions were among the highlights of this performance.

Having witnessed tenor Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist in the St John Passion last year I was amazed, not only at his musicality and multi-role stamina, but that he seemed to know much of the huge part by memory. He pulled off the same feat here in St Matthew Passion, which is doubly miraculous when you realise that the Dunedin Consort are currently touring St John Passion.

These were three gripping hours – a memorable performance!