Armonico Consort and Baroque Players
St Matthew Passion – JS Bach
The focus of the moment on this being the city of culture and all the innovation and novelty that brings, it seems odd to press the opinion that so old a piece of music in so well-grounded a setting could turn out to be the year’s highlight.
But such was Armonico’s faultless artistry in delivering Bach’s towering masterpiece that it will take something truly stunning to eclipse it in the memory of all who were there.
The cathedral’s astonishing acoustic, in particular its ability to keep a note reverberating in every corner long after the performer has moved on, played its part in making this performance as impressive as it was.
There are a few problem areas – violins can sound woolly, chromatic runs can almost trip over themselves and vocal ornamentations disappear into confusion.
But the benefits far outweigh these comparatively slight niggles. The richness of the bass and cello players’ relentless and mesmerising underpinning of so much of the score was delicious. The woodwind shone as floating lines seemed to be coming from the distant roof downwards.
Best of all perhaps was the sound of Sir Willard White’s sumptuous voice given an even greater intensity. A true force of nature. There can be very few unamplified sounds to have filled this famous space quite as overwhelmingly and beautifully as this.
Social distancing forced the normally compact ranks of the choir into a wider scattering of individual souls. But if in doing so we are treated to a vision of music being made by individuals concentrating and striving, then there was an unexpected upside to this too.
All the soloists can be proud of their contributions whether vocal or instrumental. It seems daft to pick out individuals but the countertenor William Towers and violin soloist Lucy Russell simply shone. For inspired direction and abundant energy throughout Christopher Monks should also take a bow.
For all the effect added by the cavernous spaces of the new cathedral it should be noted that the old building payed its part too.
Spacial concerns and the desire perhaps to avoid the relative cramped nature of the choir stalls, meant this was a performance facing the ‘wrong way’. Instead of the vastness of the tapestry, this concert had the cathedral ruins viewed through the immense glass wall as its backdrop. Few can not have been moved, as the Passion’s story played out, by the change from evening sunshine to sunset reds and then creeping darkness on the stone walls looking in.
A feast for the ears, the eyes and the soul. It won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Details of future performances from the consort can be found at www.armonico.org.uk