Choir singing in Royal Hall
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J S Bach - St Matthew Passion
Royal Hall, Harrogate, 2 April 2011

St Matthew Passion flyer

Stunning Passion by choral society

Followers of choral music in the region had a real dilemma on Saturday 2nd April, having to choose between performances of two masterpieces: Britten’s War Requiem in Ripon Cathedral and Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the Royal Hall Harrogate. Those who went for the Bach were not to be disappointed.

The Harrogate Choral Society, under their director Andrew Padmore, has achieved high standards lately and the interesting question was how the choir would fare when conducted by its President, the musical celebrity Brian Kay. The answer was, very well. He certainly succeeded in making them aware that they were participating in a music drama. Their key role in it ranged from a callous condemnation of Jesus to sorrow and repentance at his death. Although they did not appear to be very comfortable in the quiet passages, they were admirable in the interjections into the Evangelist’s narrative, bringing passion but also precision to their outbursts.

The chorales were also sung beautifully, with poise and balance. These serve as interludes between different phases of story. Most often they are performed as detached commentaries, perhaps by modern believers, on the events of Christ’s Passion, but in Kay’s interpretation they were strongly characterised as part of the drama. Unusually too the choir sat, rather than stood, for some of their contributions, but it was unclear whether this was for dramatic or musical reasons.

A bonus to having Brian Kay as conductor was that he brought with him the Canzona Orchestra with whom he works regularly and who are specialists in this repertory. Playing on old instruments, they were very effective, particularly in the string passages which accompany Christ’s utterances and in the solo decorations to the arias. Those arias were sung with conviction by Bibi Heal, Catherine Hooper, Daniel Auchinloss and Frederick Long. But they were somewhat outshone by Duncan Rock whose lovely warm baritone was ideal for Christ and by Richard Edgar Wilson who was the most characterful and musical of Evangelists. His articulation of the cock crowing after Peter’s denial was one of the highlights of the evening.

The Bach Passions need to be satisfying both musically and dramatically. This Harrogate performance succeeded in both respects.

Anthony Ogus