St Matthew Passion in Cambridge's King's College Chapel

Oliver Condy on a performance of the Bach St Matthew Passion at Cambridge’s King’s College chapel.

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King's College ChapelWhy didn’t Bach write an opera? It’s a question that’s often asked of a composer who eschewed Handel’s favourite art form, preferring to write legions of cantatas and major oratorios that his peers could only gawp at in reverence and, no doubt, considerable envy.

Conductor Sir Georg Solti once referred to the St Matthew Passion as an ‘unoperatic opera’ which only serves to add fuel to the debate. I think a better question to ask would be ‘Why on earth should he have written an opera?’ For Bach, the church was a far more worthy arena for the type of music he was composing – and was comfortable composing. For a man who dedicated his output ‘to the greater glory of God’, opera was surplus to his requirements – a frippery enjoyed by those preferring to immerse themselves in classical mythology rather than face up to their responsibilities before God. And for Bach, there was no other reason to write music.

But the reason why so many scratch their heads over the lack of an opera in Bach’s output is that the St Matthew Passion outdoes many of the greatest operas in its dramatic skill, characterisation, orchestral colour, narrative line and honesty.

Last night’s performance of Bach’s great masterpiece in King’s College chapel (above right) was about as honest a rendition as I can remember, one that spoke to its audience with open-eyed wonder and amazement at the music being performed and at the scenes being acted out.

On stage was a heady combination of innocence and experience, of freshness and maturity – the fragile, unpredictable treble voices and exuberant, obliging tenors and basses of the wonderful King’s College Choir alongside soloists who had the St Matthew Passion coursing through their being. Christoph Genz, a seasoned Evangelist, sung the tenor role with a fluidity that gave it an almost spoken quality, driving the story pleasingly and stylishly forward. Bass Stephan Loges was an earthy Christus, light on drama as it perhaps should be – this Jesus is a man resigned to his doom at the mercy of mankind.

Last night’s drama, however, came from the countertenor and soprano soloists (Andreas Scholl and Sophie Bevan) who provided the emotional core to our relentless journey to Jesus’s tomb, aided by superb playing from the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) under the steady baton of King’s College Choir’s director of music Stephen Cleobury. ‘Erbarme dich’, that yearning, sorrowful aria for countertenor that immediately follows Peter’s denial. Scholl’s performance gave us a glimpse of Peter’s unimaginable regret, his voice pleading, gently sobbing. Rodolfo Richter's beautiful accompanying violin obligato matched Scholl's considered phrasing pound-for-pound.

For many, ‘Erbarme dich’ represents the moment of pathos in the whole of the St Matthew Passion. Last night, however, Sophie Bevan and the exquisite, pared-back woodwind of the AAM gave us a reason to reconsider. ‘Aus liebe’, a devastating calm amid Part II’s relentless path to the grave, explains how Jesus would die out of love for us all – as the only female singer in the chapel that evening (save a few girls in the cantus firmus-intoning semi-chorus) and dressed in a purple-blue dress, she took on the role of sense against madness, a mother fighting for her son’s reputation. It was intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

The choir, who are being worked hard throughout this King’s Easter Festival, sung the chorales and choruses like only Kings can – with a youthful energy, sensitivity for the lines, an awareness of the text and an enviable blend (that settled after the opening few minutes when the tenors and altos let the occasion get the better of them).

The beautiful fan-vaulted King’s chapel, with the organ screen acting as a backdrop to the action, made for a setting that matched the power of Bach’s music.

Soloists: Christoph Genz, Stephan Loges, Neal Davies, Mark Tucker
King’s College Choir, King’s College School Chamber Choir; Academy of Ancient Music /Stephen Cleobury

The Easter at King's festival is on in Cambridge until 1 April. Visit the website for more information.