St Matthew Passion Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra Brighton Festival Chorus Brighton Dome, 18 February 2023

Robert-Howarth-conductor-Robert-Workman.jpgCards on the table: I have no doctrinal religious beliefs but that doesn’t mean I can’t have the sort of spiritual experience which comes with being deeply moved by a glorious performance of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion, arguably the best musical presentation of this story of all time. And the combined forces of a chamber version of BPO split into two orchestras including two organs plus double choir and six soloists gave a magnificent account of the work.

The performance was 95 percent excellent but I am not going to dwell here on the occasional ragged entry or the few bars here and there when the chorus, or a pair of soloists, wasn’t quite together. Such minor mishaps are inevitable in a live performance of a work of this length and complexity. Instead I shall focus, in no particular order on some of the things which made it a really rather special afternoon.

First was the singing of Matthew Brook as Christus. He brings enormous gravitas along with vulnerabity. He delivers bottom notes with such measured richness that at times it sounds tearful and the listener feels every shred of his agony. I have rarely heard Eli, Eli lama, lama a sabthani delivered with such painful power. And what a good idea to position him behind the orchestra in front of the choir stage right with James Oxley as a fine Evangelist opposite him at stage left.

Then there was Peter Adams, principal cello in the first orchestra – lead accompanist for much of the recitative. He plays with outstandingly sensitive panache and the cello and organ working together as Jesus dies was haunting. For ja fleilich wil in uns das Fleisch und Blut he laid down his cello and picked up a bass viol – some impressively nifty finger work and an arrestingly beautiful sound.

Countertenor, Patrick Terry gave us three fine arias in the second half . I am mildly synaesthetic about voices and voice types and, for me, Terry’s voice is cream with faint beige freckles – as opposed to Oxley’s clear azure blue high tenor.

I shed tears when bass, Ashley Riches, got to the lilting 6|8 of Mach dich, mein Herz rein. It’s one of the best moments in the piece anyway coming as it does at the end of the Crucifixion section and immediately before the Burial section. Riches sang it with wistful, valedictory warmth – pretty special.

And so to the huge choir. The acoustic in the Dome is such that, at this performance, the sound resounded without the choral singing ever being overborne by the orchestra (although some of the solo work from the front was sometimes less well balanced). Occasionally split into choir 1 and Choir 2 and with small solos being sung by six singers near the front, Brighton Festival Chorus was impressive. The sound is variously rich, angry, powerful and, especially in the chorales, colourfully blended.

Conducting from an organ and without baton, Robert Howarth stood at the front and kept this huge juggernaut on track – gently giving prominence to the relevant instruments and singers without ever losing a shred of the piece’s coherence and message. St Matthew Passion is much more than the sum of its parts and this performance really brought that out.

Brighton Philharmonic’s programming, is becoming ever more imaginatively adventurous under Music Director Joanna MacGregor’s leadership. I don’t remember a choral concert of this magnitude in the past. Please let’s have more of them.

Susan Elkin