Even for someone like me who is not conventionally religious, J S Bach's St Matthew Passion can still be a powerful experience. Derby Bach Choir's performance had additional resonance, being dedicated to the memory of its conductor from 1990 to 1999, John York Skinner, who died a few weeks earlier - Derby Cathedral, Derby, UK, 18 March 2023.
The choir was joined by frequent collaborators The Baroque Ensemble, led by Nicolette Moonen, with Derby Cathedral's Director of Music, Alex Binns, playing keyboard continuo, and the Cathedral choristers providing the ripieno choir in the west-end gallery.
Conductor Richard Roddis set a strong, flowing tempo for the opening chorus; choir and orchestra responded with a sense of urgency, even anxiety, the baroque oboes enhancing the dark orchestral sound.
Choral counterpoint was always clear, for example in argumentative numbers like 'To what purpose is this waste'. The choir invested 'Have thunders and lightnings forgotten theiir fury?', as Jesus is arrested, with real anger, and were incisive in the various choruses calling for his death. The chorales flowed readily, with no exaggerated cadences.
The line-up of solosts included both familiar faces and newcomers. James Oxley is one of the most reliable Evangelists around, detached and expressive, as needed.
Peter Savidge, 'happy to have been coaxed out of retirement', as he told us in his printed biography, has also appeared with DBC before. His Christus had warmth and dignity, but also flashes of anger, as in the recitative following his arrest.
Counter-tenor William Purefoy is, rightly, a DBC regular. His undemonstrative but winning presence gave his numbers a particular eloquence. As expected 'Have mercy, Lord, on me' was a high spot of the whole performance, in which he fined his tone to duet on equal terms with Nicolette Moonen's violin obbligato.
Of the three new faces, soprano Lucinda Cox made a particular impression, with her clear, focused tone. Well blended with William Purefoy in the duet 'Behold, my saviour is taken', she also shone in her solo arias, duetting gracefully with the obbligato flute and two oboi da caccia, Siu Peasegood, Gail Hennessy and Mark Radcliffe in 'For love my Saviour now is dying'.
Tenor Michael Solomon Williams, who also took the role of Peter, was sensitive but a little underpowered, suggesting that he may be more used to smaller spaces. Commenting on the penitent Judas, bass Michael Dewis brought exasperation to 'Give me back my Saviour', while also suggesting the bewilderment of someone who hasn't really come to terms with what he has done. He also found an apt sense of weariness in 'Make thee clean from sin, my heart'. The smaller solo roles were all more than competently taken by choir members.
What came over particularly for me was that the work's narrative of trust, betrayal and grief is not the exclusive property of just one set of beliefs, but has resonances far beyond.
Copyright © 3 April 2023