Perth Concert Hall
It is not only in its three-hour duration that Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an epic undertaking, and the hiatus of last year’s cancellation – the first victim of the coronavirus lockdown at Perth Concert Hall – has had the useful effect of reminding us just how important is the Dunedin Consort’s annual performance. As the choir’s chief executive Jo Buckley points out in her introductory remarks to this “as live” stream to start Perth programmer James Waters’ Easter Festival, it is a work that contains every possible human emotion and there is an added poignancy this Easter to its message of hope and salvation.
More than that though, this concert hall presentation, with all the required social distancing, makes the remarkable ingredients of Bach’s masterwork apparent in ways that could not have been predicted. There is a clarity about the ingenious storytelling, and use of the narrative voices, both musical and in the cast of characters, that is very special indeed.
Most obviously that is in the way the concert looks, with its two choruses, two orchestras and soloists, as well as how it sounds, the Perth hall’s wonderful acoustic beautifully recorded, a full, rich instrumental sound (no period instrument weediness here), and the singers placed in widescreen stereo across the stage. With effective and undistracting lighting, the video work is understated, usually (but not obsessively) matching the voices and instruments to be heard, with the occasional cross-fade as arias are accompanied by soloists or conductor John Butt directs a particular transition.
He has an A-team to conduct: Andrew Tortise is a measured and dramatic Evangelist with immaculate diction, and Matthew Brook a weighty and compelling Christus. However, it is the early outings of the women soloists that really make you sit up, alto Jess Dandy accompanied by the pair of flutes, soprano Jessica Leary stepping out of the second chorus and Anna Dennis just as expressive in partnership with the oboes. The other three solo voices, bass Benedict Nelson, tenor David Lee, and alto Judy Brown are no less impressive when their opportunities come around.
It is the clever matching of the arias, providing the commentary of the faithful on the Passion story with the singers who have been characters in that narrative, that is so spectacularly clear here. This is Butt’s Bach scholarship made flesh in a way that anyone coming to the work for the first time will instantly appreciate.
The conductor takes his time over his tale, with none of the regulation briskness that can blight historically-informed performance, secure in the knowledge that Bach’s version of Matthew’s telling of the Easter story is unique on its own terms. Similarly, there is nothing clinical in the playing of featured instrumentalists like flautist Katy Bircher and first violin Huw Daniel or in any of the singing, with the occasional natural imprecision enhancing the narrative flow.
If the restrictions of social distancing have no negative effect on any of the individual elements, it is also impossible to detect any diminishing in the ensemble instrumental sound, or the varied colours of the continuo – to which Butt adds chamber organ – or those moments when the two choirs combine for the glorious punctuation of Bach’s chorales.
That hymn-tune may be the ear-worm of the work but this Passion could hardly be less austere and presbyterian. It is the operatic quality of this oratorio for which this concert performance decisively argues the case.
Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography