Music in Durham

Singing St Matthew

It’s taken me nearly a week before I’ve felt ready to write about our St Matthew Passion. I almost said nothing at all, but having written about preparations for it, I thought I should round things off with a look back at a performance in which I was extraordinarily proud to have taken part.  What made it so special was not just the usual concert-kick of standing up in front of hundreds of people to sing amazing music, but also hearing the thrilling combination of young soloists performing their St Matthew arias for the first time, supported by very experienced professional musicians. Throughout the arias there was an air of quiet, worldly wisdom from the instrumentalists, set against the youthful passion of the singers. Caroline Balding and Sarah Ryan performing Erbarme Dich together was probably the most powerful example of how well this juxtaposition of youth and experience worked, with the violin offering gentle comfort to the anguish of the vocal line, but it was there throughout all the arias.

Holding everything together was our Evangelist, Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Christus, played by Richard Strivens. Nick was our Evangelist when we did the St John Passion and I love the way he lets the melodies of Bach’s recitative sing out without ever obscuring the text. He was sang from the middle of the choir, almost next to me: some singers can be a bit much when you’re really close to them, but this was a treat.

As ever, I was bowled over by the period instruments: in the orchestral rehearsal I completely missed my first entry in our accompaniment to the tenor aria O Schmerz! because I was so entranced by the combined sound of the oboes da caccia and recorders. At this point too, I would like to say a big thank you to our theorbo player, Hector Sequera, who brought this amazing instrument out to the front of the stage during the interval and talked about it to people. Someone asked me on Twitter what the historical justification was for including a theorbo; I don’t know if there is any, but it sounded amazing, and really added something to the continuo part.

Where the theorbo was really effective was at the moment of Christ’s death, and it was this short recitative passage and the chorale that followed that completely caught me off guard. Of course I expected it to be moving, but I hadn’t expected to feel such devastating pain from it. The continuo line was reduced to a whisper, letting the plaintive sound of the theorbo cut through, while Richard Strivens delivered the anguish of Christ’s dying cry. I was shaken by how vividly the music captured the utter loneliness of Christ’s death, when everyone, even God has abandoned him. In the silence that followed, I looked across at the stand of prayer candles and saw that almost all of them had burnt out, except for one solitary flame, which just added to the sense of desolation. And then, we had to sing, very low and quiet, the final version of the “passion” chorale, with words that begged God not to leave us to die alone and I fell apart.

But then, so beautifully, in the remaining half hour or so of music, Bach gently picked me up and put me back together again, particularly in the quiet joyfulness of Mache dich, mein Herze, rein so that by the time we got to the last two choruses, I was able to put all my heart into the last farewell. 

Now that I’ve finally sung both Passions, I think I have to say that St John definitely is more fun – the long vicious crowd choruses are an amazing adrenaline rush to sing, and the ecstasy I felt after the final chorale last time I sang St John is one of those moments that always raises a smile when I remember it. St Matthew left me feeling bruised and for all the wonder of Saturday’s concert, I think it’ll be a while before I’m ready to tackle it again.

UPDATE 3 Dec: I’ve just found this blog post by Charlotte Heslop, one of our soloists, sharing her own thoughts – far more succinctly than I have managed.


More Posts

Composer Ailsa Dixon in woodland

Introducing Ailsa Dixon’s Music

Composer Ailsa Dixon studied at Durham in the 1950s. Ahead of a concert celebrating her music, her daughter Josie Dixon tells Ailsa’s story and introduces the music on the programme.

EXAUDI – In dew of roses

Stunning vocal music spanning six centuries, including brand new compositions by A-level students at St Leonards RC comprehensive school

Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

Guest reviewer Olivia Hamilton is enthralled by Rolf Hind’s expressive intentions as he gives a remarkable performance of Olivier Messiaen’s piano masterpiece for MUSICON