St Matthew Passion
There’s a certain irony at the start of this Matthew Passion, recorded in the church for which it was written and by the latest edition of the choir who first sang it. The panels of the High Altar are ceremonially closed – hiding the paintings depicting the very events to be unfolded musically.
Up in the west gallery, sailor-suited and sober-suited, the massed ranks of the Thomanerchor wait, while the congregation in the nave prepares to receive its Bach quite literally from on high. Looking to other productions one can see that Peter Sellars has ‘ritualised’ the Passion for Simon Rattle’s Berliners, while one-to-a-part versions burgeon. But this is a performance that has Bach ‘liturgically’ wired into its DNA, and to invoke comparisons with adult professional choirs buttressed by international soloists is to miss the point. Georg Christoph Biller, the 16th Thomaskantor since Bach, presides over a resolutely family affair. Half the principal soloists – including Martin Lattke’s increasingly affecting Evangelist – are former choir members (as is Biller himself). The sheer number of singers would have amazed Bach, but important to understanding the distinctive sound is the realisation that all the tenors and basses (light yet capable of a certain gruffness) are teenage Thomasschule members.
Biller’s direction exudes profound integrity and commitment, the chorales in particular shaped by a deeply-felt inevitability, and the ethereal alto purity of recent Thomasschule graduate Stefan Kahle is deeply moving alongside the noble Christus of veteran Klaus Mertens and Christina Landshamer’s radiant soprano. The visual inter-cutting is sometimes a little fussy, but this is a moving testament to a choir celebrating 800 years and probably stronger than ever.