Dunedin: Matthew Passion

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre

I’ve been spoilt when it comes to Good Friday performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by the Dunedin Consort. It may have been nine years ago, but the memorable setting was on tour in Weimar’s historic Herderkirche, against a backdrop of Lucas Cranach’s vivid altarpiece and the very font used to baptise the composer’s son, CPE Bach, with a German congregation joining in the chorales that, in this sublime retelling of the Easter story according to Matthew, represent “the voice of the people”. Hard to forget.

The setting for this year’s Good Friday performance was very different, the secular modernity and bright functionalism of the RSNO’s home auditorium insisting largely on one key focus for the delivery of the spiritual message, the music itself. If part of me ached for the holistic “living history” experience of 2014, director John Butt and his nuclear cast of singers and period instrument players provided little short of a wholesome presentation to a near-capacity Glasgow audience.

Followers of Dunedin will be familiar with its ways: one singer to a part (double SATB chorus in this case) and proportionately minimalist twin band. The inevitable intimacy of such an approach – the soloists drawn from the vocal ensemble – brings with it a thrilling intensity and engagement that made this 3-hour-plus event fly past in a breeze. 

If anything, a bit of acclimatisation in the opening chorus, the first of two featuring members of the RSNO Youth Chorus as the soaring line of Ripieno Sopranos, left some aspects of balance – the otherwise efficient youth choir slightly under projected – in flux, but once tenor Andrew Tortise’s captivating Evangelist took firm hold of the narrative, sure-footed confidence wiped away any initial uncertainty. Indeed, Tortise’s performance – judiciously emotive in the best story-telling tradition – was the purposeful linchpin around which a versatile cast played out its drama.

That team spirit established a lightning fluency in delivery, the host of protagonists (from Jesus to Judas to Pontius Pilate) each enacted with searing individualised charisma, yet as a chorus, the vocal team retreated into homogenised near-perfection. Any sense of imperfection – single voices that momentarily edged above the parapet – was strangely, often beautifully, impactful. Those brief rabble-rousing chorus interjections around the trial scene sent shivers up the spine.

Individually, Edward Grint captured the bass role of Jesus with noble poignancy. Fellow bass Christopher Webb breathed fire into his assortment of character cameos, alongside multi-hued performances by sopranos Nardus Williams and Miriam Allan, tenor Christopher Bowen and countertenor Rory McLeery. But the ultimate showstopper was surely alto Jess Dandy’s soul-stirring aria Erbarme dich, sung with melting warmth and impassioned amplitude in liquid partnership with lead violinist Huw Daniel’s exquisite obligato solo.

That’s not to take anything away from other virtuoso instrumental contributions, such as Jonathan Manson’s free-flowing viola da gamba counterpoint to the bass aria Mache dich, or the sultry duetting oboe d’amores that embellish the soprano aria, Ich will dir mein Herze schenken. 

In all of this John Butt’s leadership counted for everything, impeccable timing that heightened the dramatic juxtapositions, expressed moments of deep sensitivity and chilling theatre in equal measure, and which triumphed in expressing the wonderment and relevance of Bach’s creative symbolism.

Ken Walton