Part of the St Thomas Choir Leipzig’s 800th anniversary celebrations, this Manchester concert was a deeply moving evening in which superb musicianship all round seemed almost to bring Bach himself, a Thomaskantor (choir director) in his day, to the Bridgewater Hall.

Members of the St Thomas Choir, © Gert Mothes
Members of the St Thomas Choir,
© Gert Mothes

The Passions of J.S. Bach are well described in Paul Kilbey’s recent article. The St. Matthew, in short, is a setting of the final days of Christ, up to his burial, consisting of recitatives, arias, chorus interjections and fuller, reflective chorales. The all-male choir of St. Thomas’ Church sang beautifully and to technical perfection, and their chorales were undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Several times I was convinced I was hearing a passage which could surely not be surpassed, only for the next reflection to be even more heart-rendingly poignant. The finest, though, was the hushed chorale immediately following Christ’s death: ‘When at last I must depart / depart thou not then from me’. This was a magical moment, the sound seeming to rise from the stage without effort. A close follower was the more powerfully convictive ‘O head marked with blood and wounds’, where the impassioned lamentation was absolutely convincing. The choir were as effective at being an excitable crowd as they were as hushed mourners, but it was as the latter that they really made the evening, supported by a supremely light touch, though never insubstantial. Without exception, every entry and cut-off was perfectly executed, suggesting that this is a choir which knows itself very well indeed.

Georg Christoph Biller, Thomaskantor since 1992, remained in supreme control throughout with refined, uncomplicated conducting. One can assume all involved tonight know the St. Matthew inside out, but for the most part he maintained momentum (the later stages of Part 1 dragged slightly) and invigorated the music, all the while drawing a consistently beautiful sound from choir and orchestra.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is no small institution itself, being one of the oldest orchestras in the world and having had a distinguished line of Music Directors including Felix Mendelssohn, Bruno Walter, and (currently) Riccardo Chailly. Cunningly, they were playing two simultaneous concerts this evening: Herbert Blomstedt was conducting Bruckner in their home city at the same time. The first and second concertmasters and only a few other senior players were in Manchester, but the standard of playing was nonetheless superb throughout. In accompaniment they were sensitive and well balanced, and the strings were warm. There were very fine solos from the concertmasters, principal flute and viola de gamba, backed by steady, measured continuo.

The narrative was carried by Martin Petzold as the Evangelist. He made an excellent job of it, moving from unobtrusive narration to characterised, bold statements with sound judgement. He interacted very pleasingly with Christ (Matthias Weichert) in the latter’s trial before the Priests, and sang very lyrically about Peter’s denial in partnership with the violin solo and subsequently with the alto (Stefan Kahle). His presence seemed to bring the best from the other singers; whilst they were mostly very good, Weichert felt slightly lightweight at times, as did tenor soloist Cristoph Genz, but Petzold’s assistance seemed to raise the bar to excellence.

Kahle’s alto solos were very impressive, his distinctive voice well suited to the role and quite affecting throughout. His opening of part 2 seemed to emerge from pianissimo darkness, searching and mournful in his cry of ‘Alas, my Jesus is now gone.’ Soprano Ute Selbig was also very good, particularly in cooperation with the oboe d’amore pair and flute in ‘He has done good to us all’, as was bass Gotthold Schwarz.

This was a superb performance of a revolutionary piece by quite possibly the best choir for the job, with a world-class orchestra and some fine soloists in front of it. The audience responded with roaring applause: how richly deserved it was.

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