From the first churning triplets of the opening it was clear that Mark Padmore and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment intended a St Matthew Passion that would cleave closely to the meanings of its Latin root passio: enduring, suffering. This was a Matthew Passion that was restless, searching and existential, rather than monumental and meditative. 

Mark Padmore directed the OAE and singers, though that description is something of an oversimplification. Doing this piece without a conductor in the conventional sense was startling. “Essentially what you’re creating on stage is a sort of chamber music performance where people are really listening to one another”, Padmore wrote in the programme. Miraculously, soloists, orchestra and choir responded to a single intake of breath, a piercing glance, or shift in posture from Padmore. This created an extraordinarily intense environment of heightened attention in which both audience and performers communed intimately with the text. 

This way of approaching the performance is more than just a testament to some committed and impressive musicianship, though. The absence of a conductor imbued what we see with an intense feeling of collective responsibility, of equal and shared participation, embodied by constantly shifting centres of musical and dramatic gravity. This seemed to refract the moral concerns of the text, which deals with torture, responsibility, false imprisonment, and the madness of crowds.  

Mark Padmore has a fascinating voice; his Evangelist is distinctive and totally compelling. His upper register has the capacity to be unearthly, ghostly, announcing the darkness that fell as Christ cries out on the cross with haunting blend of head and chest voice that sounded on the verge of tears. Elsewhere he was heroic, keening, reaching high notes with drama and force, for instance when describing the rending of the veil of the Temple.

Claudia Huckle’s alto solos shone darkly, treading a line between redemptive warmth and gentle sorrow. “Erbarme dich” was delivered with breathtaking lyrical control, gently imploring, her voice woven seamlessly with the fiercely expressive violin solo of Matthew Truscott, both floating on the ethereal strings of the OAE. Transporting stuff. Her duet with soprano Louise Kemény was another highlight, with lacerating tone-painting from the choir’s whiplash interjections in “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”: “Loose him! Leave him! Bind him not!’

Matthew Brook’s bass was one of the outstanding voices of the evening. His characterisation of Pilate moved between outraged condescension and guilt, and his recitatives were delivered with lucidity and force. “Gerne will Ich mich bequemen” had a dark core that tapped the seam of northern European melancholy which pierces the heart of the Matthew Passion. Some of the most intense emotional ratcheting came in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”, where Brook prowled, wounded, bristling at the violin obbligato – delivered by OAE violinist Michael Gurevich, who lead orchestra two – whose searing lyricism channeled all the guilt and fury of Picander’s text: “Give, O Give me back my Lord,/ See the silver, price of blood, / At your feet in horror pour’d. / By the lost betrayer.”

Special mention too should be made of tenor Hugo Hymas, whose “Geduld, Geduld!” offered quite a different kind of tenor sound and mood to that of Padmore: stronger, resolved, and richer in hue, his moment in the spotlight exhorted the audience to stand firm through all the horrors the text forces us to witness. 

Roderick Williams’ Christus made a striking contrast to Padmore’s plangent keening: his baritone is clean and bright, yet never lacking a core, and his bottom register painted the text with wonderful colours. His Christus had a studied naivete, whose fear and desperation were held back until the latter sections of Part Two, resigned and steadfast about the suffering to come in “Komm, süßes Kreuz, so will ich sagen”.

There were many fine solos from an OAE on blistering form: a pair of oboe da caccia in Huckle’s “Ach Golgotha, unseliges Golgotha” gave us sinuous mystery and doom; Richard Tunnicliffe’s viola da gamba danced in agony, every spread chord driving a nail in, under Williams’ “Komm, süßes Kreuz”.

The delivery of the text and quality of the diction that evening was absolutely outstanding: crystal clear, intensified in the phrasing and articulation of the instrumentalists, and so vivid one could’ve eschewed the translation in the programme. This was a restless mediation on suffering, rooted in the human world with only oblique flashes of the divine one beyond: the final cadence of the closing chorale “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” arrived with a lacerating, sustained dissonance that seemed to last forever and promised no escape from the human problems framed by Bach’s masterpiece.