Right from the heavy darkness and weight of the opening bars, it was clear that Royal Northern Sinfonia’s St Matthew Passion would be steeped in drama, taking us straight to the basic story at the heart of Bach’s complex masterpiece. Throughout, conductor Thomas Zehetmair carefully shaped every single instrumental line, making the most of the rich timbres offered by modern instruments to caress the sublime melodies and to bring out every detail of Bach’s word painting. More than any Bach choral performance I have heard recently, the two orchestras were at the forefront of the music.

Thomas Zehetmair and Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Thomas Zehetmair and Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

The two principal actors in the story, the Evangelist and Christ, were brought vividly to life as real people. James Oxley’s clear-voiced Evangelist was never a detached story-teller; this was a fiercely characterful narrator, who made his opinions clear, particularly his disdain for those such as Judas and Pilate who stumble in the face of moral challenges. Nicholas Merryweather began as an angry Christ until the Gethsemane scene, when his pleading for release went straight to the heart. At this dark moment, the halo of strings that surrounds Christ became very quiet and distant, presaging Christ’s dying breath when they are silenced.

The singing by the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia though was as tightly disciplined as ever but compared to Bach’s St John Passion, the chorus in St Matthew have a smaller role to play and some of their angry crowd scenes are so short that they didn’t always manage to get themselves into character, although they rose to terrifying viciousness in the “Laß Ihn krezuigen” movements. Choir II were very expressive and full of pity in their interactions with the arias, particularly “Ach mein Jesu” and “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” and Choir I created beautifully sweeping phrases in the opening “Kommt ihr Töchter”as did both choirs in the final chorus. Their best moment was the highly colourful “Sind Blitze, sind Donner”, in which they pounded out surges of sound, stoking up the energy as the chorus words gets more and more indignant.

Royal Northern Sinfonia assembled a fine line-up for the soprano, alto and bass arias. Soprano Mhairi Lawson’s “Blute nur” was full of emotion, sighing in anguish against the pulsing flow of the accompanying flutes and strings, and her “Aus Liebe” was touching in its innocence, surrounded by a protective cocoon of wind instruments, led by the expressive flute of Juliette Bausor. Lawson and countertenor Christopher Ainslie blended wonderfully in their duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”, their twisting lines dripping with woe, with Choir II’s furious interjections making a dramatic contrast. My own feeling is that whatever Bach may have intended, the alto arias in St Matthew work better with a well-rounded female voice, but setting my preferences aside, Christopher Ainslie was a delight to listen to. His “Ach mein Jesu” was steeped in agony, with big pauses and then gorgeous shape in the very long held notes. “Buß und Reu” went with a gentle lilt, his tone soothing against the bitter teardrops of the flute. The hauntingly beautiful “Erbarme dich” was sung with simplicity and a beautiful shaping of the lines, whilst orchestra I leader Bradley Creswick poured out all the heartbreak in the sobbing violin solo. Benjamin Bevan was a last minute replacement for an indisposed Samuel Evans; I enjoyed the clear firm tone that he employed right across his range, and his elegant singing. His final aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” was soothing and relaxing, reminding us after the desolation of the cross that it has all happened for a reason.

The attention that Thomas Zehetmair lavished on the orchestra meant that the singers were too often left to make their own way, and the chorales sometimes interrupted the flow rather than being thoughtful commentaries on the dialogue. The positive side of this was that the aria accompaniments really brought extra depth and meaning to the text. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, Kyra Humphreys, leading Orchestra II, was magnificently angry in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” and the strings gave a heavy weight to the falling tears of “Können Tränen”. The viola da gamba player, Reiko Ichise added fantastic colour and expression to her two arias, particularly her surprising heavy, dragging accents in “Komm, süßes Kreuz”, and after a hard-working evening offering sensitive and unobtrusive continuo support, cellist Louisa Tuck and organist Jan Waterfield were allowed to go wild on their thrilling depiction of the destruction of the temple.

As a singer, I found that Zehetmair’s attentiveness to the orchestral writing brought out surprising new meaning and colour in a piece that I thought I knew well, in a performance that was above all approachable and engaging; a simple presentation of the story rather than a complex theological exploration.