The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre might not be a consecrated religious space, but the Melbourne Bach Choir’s moving performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Good Friday made it feel like one.
After COVID restrictions required having to cancel a performance of Bach’s St John Passion (twice!), conductor Rick Prakhoff chose the work that not only led to the formation of the Melbourne Bach Choir in 2006, but was also one that he and many others consider to be “the single greatest sacred work in the Western canon”.
Prior to the performance proper, Prakhoff read the accustomed acknowledgement Aboriginal lands and people, and then spoke about how the pandemic continued to affect this performance. The major change concerned the key role of the Evangelist. When Andrew Goodwin first sang this role in Melbourne he caused a sensation; he seemed a born Evangelist. Disappointing as his withdrawal was for all concerned, Robert Macfarlane, another outstanding tenor with experience in the role, was able to fill the breach effectively at short notice. Macfarlane’s voice is one of most pleasing warmth, steadiness and beauty. He did, however, occasionally resort to a half-voiced thread of sound to negotiate some of the more taxing, higher notes. Barely looking at the score in his hands Macfarlane sang with almost operatic conviction, addressing the audience directly at times; people in the front stalls may well have been a little taken aback when he told them “The man I shall kiss, that’s him, seize him!” at the end of the dramatic betrayal narrative. Story-telling was heightened in this riveting performance.
Bach gives the chorus plenty of dramatic moments too as they assume various personas, especially as a bloodthirsty mob keen on inflicting pain, and choosing “Barabbam!” rather than Jesus for release. The Choir was in full-bodied cry for “Laß ihn kreuzigen!” (Let him be crucified) – such a dramatic contrast to the following Chorale “Wie wunderbalich ist doch diese Strafe!” (How amazing is this punishment!). In this and all the combined choir work, choristers sang with ample resonant tone. As with so many amateur choirs, female voices, especially sopranos, tended to dominate, but the thirty men could usually be heard clearly, especially in fugal sections. Three of the eight members of the Ripieno Choir were also unable to perform because of COVID restrictions, but the remaining five, singing from the balcony close to the stage, did a fine job indeed. They could be heard clearly within the superb choruses that bookend the work, bringing what Leonard Bernstein called “redemptive clarity” as the steady choral melody shone through the surging double chorus plus full orchestra accompaniment. Some of the major musical and dramatic interest derives from having two separate choruses and orchestras. Placing choristers side by side without any separation might have reduced some of the antiphonal effects, but enhanced the splendid unified blend of the chorales. The choice of lowering the green acoustic blinds also had its pros and cons. On the one hand it reduced the benefits of extra resonance for the soloists and choir – possibly accounting for the tentative entry of the chorus 1 sopranos in the opening chorus – but it did enable greater clarity. From Row T in the Stalls, the detail that Prakhoff and performers took pains to convey was distinctly audible.
A line-up of excellent, experienced soloists produced some remarkable performances. It would be difficult to find a more suitable bass-baritone for the role of Jesus than Adrian Tamburini. He possesses a rich, dark voice that encompasses a rare degree of pathos in its timbre – an embracing quality resonant with sorrow and passion. Delicate playing from Orchestra 1, led by Madeleine Easton, provided a luminous halo effect to accompany him.
Jacqueline Porter seems to be the go-to soprano in Melbourne at the moment, and justly so. Her “Aus, Liebe” (Aus Liebe), with its long, pianissimo entry was nothing short of transcendent. Just as the leading violinists had stood for a couple of significant arias, so the two oboes and first flute of Orchestra 1 stood for the Recitative that preceded this Aria. Eliza Shephard’s flute playing was immaculate throughout, but the flute obbligato against the two sobbing oboes and the floating purity of Porter’s soprano created an intensely moving experience. Sally-Anne Russell displayed similar expressive sensitivity and admirable control, spinning out long phrases without any intrusive vibrato. Using a Baroque bow, Madeleine Easton played a silver-toned violin obbligato, for the ravishing alto aria “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) with dexterity and grace. Russell’s singing of this and the aria with chorus 2 “Sehet, Jesus hat die hand … ausgespannt” (See Jesus has stretched out his hand”) were among notable highlights – poised, flowing and always responsive to the emotional landscape of the text and music.
As Judas, Pilate and soloist for the bass recitatives and arias, Jeremy Kleeman was outstanding. His bass-baritone was strong and assertive in the two roles, and flexible, even and unforced in the arias, particularly “Gebt mir meinen Jesu wieder “ (Give me back my Jesus) with Meg Cohen playing an elegant violin obbligato. The St Matthew Passion is full of remarkable invention, not the least being the instrumentation for the bass aria “Komm süßes Kreuz” (Come sweet Cross) and the recitative that precedes it. The combination of Reidun Turner’s viola da gamba and two delicate flutes for the recitative, followed by the gamba and continuo instruments for the aria, was immensely satisfying. Kleeman’s excellent breath control and technical ease contributed to a strong sense of cohesion. He appeared to sing mostly from memory, and even when he wasn’t singing, seemed fully engaged with the narrative and music. He looked as though he would have gladly joined the choir in the chorales.
Henry Choo used his ringing tenor to good effect in the demanding tenor arias and James Emerson made a creditable contribution as Peter, High Priest and some minor characters.
In his opening remarks, Rick Prakhoff dedicated this performance of the St Matthew Passion to the people of Ukraine. His father had escaped from Kiev as a child in 1938, so the current dreadful events have great personal significance to him, as does the work itself. The fact that Prakhoff, the Melbourne Bach Choir and the superb Melbourne Bach Orchestra could present such an uplifting reading of this magnificent score at this time is a cause for celebration.
Image courtesy Melbourne Bach Choir.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, presented by the Melbourne Bach Choir at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Good Friday, April 15, 2022.