MattA stirring performance of the St Matthew Passion on Saturday night in Winchester Cathedral (by the Waynflete Singers with guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington), reminded me just how great the opening chorus (“Kommt ihr Tochter”) is. It’s ridiculous to try to analyse such a towering masterpiece in a short blog entry – and I wouldn’t feel up to the task however many words I used. Instead I’ll just summarise the most obvious things I heard once again tonight that add up to so much.

First the orchestral introduction with its ominous, 12/8 tread over a persistent pedal point and grinding harmonies, ratcheting up the tension before the choir enters. In fact two choirs enter, spatially separated and singing different parts. They represent the crowds in Jerusalem (perhaps on either side of the road) questioning each other as Jesus walks slowly along bearing the cross. And there’s a third layer, choirboys singing a simple chorale melody (“innocent Lamb of God”), soaring above the complex texture in a bright G major, which contrasts with the choir’s somber E minor. Towards the end, when it seems like all the main material has been presented, the choir takes up something new, a more fragmented, quieter and harmonically uneasy sequential passage, as the crowd starts to acknowledge its own complicity and guilt. “Look. Look where? On our offence”. After that the two choirs come together as one for the first time: “Look – behold his love for us”. It’s breathtaking.

This is one of Bach’s longest single choral movements, usually lasting around eight minutes, but it never seems long enough to me – though that doesn’t mean it should be played too slowly. There’s an urgency in the music that pushes it along and that shouldn’t be resisted. For me the reason this movement is so compelling is its mixture of explicit drama, coming from the situation and the text, coupled with music that’s expertly paced in the way it ebbs and flows harmonically and rhythmically. On top of this are the spatial contrasts between the two choirs, the choirboys and the two orchestras. It’s as if the various forces have been blocked for positions, just as actors are in the theatre. This all intensifies the drama to an unimaginable height. Norrington (who is now 81 years old), sat down to conduct the performance, but his long arms expertly traced the contours of the piece to guide and inspire the performers. Chorus Master George Castle, who did a lot of the preparatory work behind the scenes, was also on hand to conduct the Winchester Cathedral Choristers.

For a very different production with the very minimum of forces that highlights the drama (perhaps a little at the expense of the music, but exhilarating none the less) an excerpt of Jonathan Miller’s theatrical staging can be seen here.

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