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Bach St Matthew Passion

Richard Edgar-Wilson Evangelist
Christopher Purves Christus bass
Joanne Lunn soprano
Frances Bourne mezzo-soprano
Daniel Norman tenor
Neal Davies bass-baritone

City of London Sinfonia/London Symphony Chorus/LSO St Luke's Youth Choir/ City of London Sinfonia
Joseph Cullen conductor

Barbican Hall Easter Sunday April 8, 2007

Thursday's St John Passion in the same hall was for purists; this (a performance in aid of the LSC's regular charity partners, CARE International - an organisation fighting world poverty) for universalists.

Even without the occasional reinforcement of the children's choir, there were over a hundred in the chorus. Forces we would now regard as unwieldy made for an under-interpreted performance with a cobbled-together feel. The immense drama of both plot and music of course play themselves, but Cullen seemed much more comfortbale with choral effects (such as the shouted 'Barrabam') than orchestral ones. A number of stirkingly written instrumenal moments - the scattering of the sheep, the opening of hell in 'sind Donner, sind Blitzen' and even the rending of the veil of the temple - were almost routine in execution.

As on Thursday, the key 'character' was fortunately also the strongest singer, though the Matthew is enacted by Christus, at least in part 1, rather than the John, which is narrated by the Evangelist. Purves was warm-toned, full of authority, yet conveying the human suffering that Jesus undergoes during the night of his arrest. In comparison, Edgar-Wilson was uneven, occasionally gabbling the long recitatives.

Of the four soloists, Lunn's intonation and style was excellent, her diction less so, Bourne unconvincingly superficial for the part that carries the greatest emotional weight of the four, though convcingly expressive in the trio of her first aria. Norman was frequently harsh-toned, Davies committed but not especially rich-voiced. In the second part, with Christ almost silent, the drop in emotional tension was discernible, not helped by some poor singing from the minor characters. Mark Levy's cameo viola da gamba appearance was, however, especially welcome, his playing as supple and musical as ever. Since I was pedantic about some of the pronounciation on Thursday, I should be consistent and be extremely critical of the much worse German accents heard tonight.

For the Barbican's own Great Performers series, programmes are free; following the complex text of John Passion had been much helped by the exemplary layout of Thursday's.

Tonight, for a third party promotion, the audience was asked to pay £3 for a programme littered with errors, both typographic and other. The parallel English text was an off-the-shelf singing version, not a translation of the sung German, and in this digital age, even if proof-reading remains hard, it would only have taken a few seconds of 'find and replace all' to change the many instances of 'counter-tenor' to 'alto' (see cast above).

As we are now always told, Bach's audiences heard the cantatas and Passions as part of church services. Had there been a priest tonight, he might well have chosen the Passion's opening incident as the text for his sermon. A woman pours expensive ointment over Jesus' head; the disciples are scandalised it was not sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus tels them to let her alone; he is only with them a short while; the poor will always be there to be helped. Instead, this woman will be famous in posterity for her actions. In other words - straightforward good deeds matter, but symbols - and their messages- matter too. No more powerful symbol of faith than this Passion exists.

Ying Chang