Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is undeniably one of the greatest compositions ever written and was founded on Bach’s own deep personal Christian faith. Such a monumental work demands forces worthy of it. They were present in the performances given by the Hamilton Civic Choir and St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra and soloists in Hamilton and Auckland on 20 and 21 March – days before Bach’s 336th birthday. Conductor Timothy Carpenter directed soloists, choir, continuo players and orchestra with total authority and a compelling conducting style. In Auckland the wonderful acoustics of St Matthews enhanced the whole performance.
All four soloists were impressive. Lachlan Craig as the Evangelist carried the heaviest burden and anchored the whole narrative with great eloquence. James Harrison, as Jesus, sang the role with gravitas and total conviction. His aria Mache dich, mein Herze, rein, was masterly. The two women soloists, Jayne Tankersley, with her bell-like soprano and Sarah Court, contralto, sang with great emotional depth. The continuo parts were all played immaculately, by Dr Philip Smith (chamber organ), Chris Greenslade (harpsichord) and Yotam Levy on the very prominent cello line. Several members of the choir sang the minor roles very competently.
The oratorio was sung in the original German but there was a full English translation in the programme. The choir sang with well-articulated phrases, moving apparently effortlessly between the contemplative chorales and the crowd scenes calling for Jesus’s execution.
The orchestra, divided into two sections, was equally well prepared. Rachel Moxham and Michael McLellan led the two groups and shared the two great violin solos – in the alto aria Erbarme dich, and the bass aria Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder. The woodwinds were particularly important to the ensemble, the higher lines of flute and oboe penetrating the string accompaniment.
The oratorio is a profoundly moving work and the lengthy pause made after the Evangelist announced the death of Jesus was very dramatic. The final chorus, expressing grief and love was sung with great majesty and reverence.
The performance, evidence of great co-operation between forces in two cities, was wonderfully fulfilling for the audience and I hope the performers. A noteworthy milestone in the choir’s and orchestra’s histories.
Review by Rogan Falla