The St Matthew Passion is one of Bach’s greatest religious works. Traditionally sung on Good Friday, it has also become a tradition for the Dunedin Consort to sing it in Edinburgh. The Dunedin are, of course, Scotland’s, if not Britain’s, finest chamber interpreters of religious music. Their musical director, John Butt, in his excellent programme notes, explains how Bach’s version of the Passion evolved from all the different liturgical, oratorio and operatic traditions. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that, in Bach’s day, the congregation would sit through the whole of the Passion with a sermon in between! Since the Passion on its own takes over three hours, one can only conclude that Bach’s congregations were very hardy as well as devoted! Nevertheless, the Queen’s Hall is packed and very hot this evening, so clearly Edinburgh musical audiences have taken the St Matthew Passion to their hearts as part of their Easter experience.
Sadly, John Butt is not here to conduct, but we have an excellent substitute in guest conductor (from the harpsichord—although he rarely touched it), Trevor Pinnock. He is a very renowned performer and conductor and, with his English Concert, has for over thirty years helped revive early music in England. From start to finish there is no doubt he is in charge directing the musicians, bringing in the singers and occasionally touching the harpsichord! At the core of the twenty-plus musicians of the Dunedin Consort is organist Stephen Farr, who sits directly opposite Pinnock, his organ providing the musical centre of the Passion.
However, the Passion is all about the words, and the eight soloists become part of one of two choruses when not singing solo. The choruses are labelled chorus one and two, and one cannot help feeling that the singers in chorus one sound better than those in chorus two. For example, Jessica Gillingwater, the alto in chorus two, is a very good singer, a member of the BBC Singers, and is making her name as a soloist and in opera. Yet Jess Dandy, the alto in chorus one, comes across more authoritatively. It may just be that chorus one gets the best tunes!
This is certainly true in the case of the Evangelist, who gets most of singing and all of the best tunes. He is superbly sung by Hugo Hymas (who is Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Evangelist), and the tenor in chorus two, William Blake, despite being a very accomplished singer with a growing reputation, suffers by comparison. The bass (and Jesus) in chorus one, Tomáš Král, does have some great music to sing and does it very well, as does the bass in chorus two, Matthias Helm.
The sopranos also compare very favourably: Lina Dambrauskaitė, the young Lithuanian in chorus one, is already an experienced opera singer, and Miriam Allan, from chorus two, has already achieved a fine international reputation on the concert platform and in the opera house. The chorus are occasionally supplemented by the choristers of Paisley Abbey, who are experienced concert performers.
Overall, it is a very good performance of a great work, but at the end of over three hours, seated in the not very comfortable seats in the Queen’s Hall, the packed audience give a warm but relieved response to the Dunedin.