Over the last twenty years Angela Dugdale has conducted many performances of the three great masterpieces that J.S. Bach wrote ‘ad majorem Dei gloriam’ – the B Minor Mass and the Passions of St John and St Matthew. This year it was the turn of the Matthew Passion, which she performed on Good Friday at St Nicholas Church, Salthouse, with four soloists and the Kelling Consort and Orchestra.

Both the Bach Passions are at the same time highly dramatic settings of two of the Gospel narratives and meditations on Christ’s sufferings. From at least the tenth century the tradition was established in the Roman Church of presenting the Passion in dramatic form, with three voices - priest, deacon and subdeacon - chanting the four versions in the four Gospels successively during the Holy Week liturgies, beginning with St Matthew on Palm Sunday and ending with St John on Good Friday (with St Mark on Tuesday, St Luke on Wednesday and the Lamentations of St Jeremiah and the Miserere on Maundy Thursday). Over the centuries the settings of the Passion became increasingly elaborate, with meditative arias and choruses interspersed among the narrative recitatives. Part of Bach’s genius was to create in his settings of the Matthew and John Passions two works of incomparable majesty that perfectly balance the narrative and meditative elements, while at the same time meeting the liturgical demands of the Lutheran services for which they were written. St Matthew gives a more straightforward as well as a more complete account of the dramatic events leading up to Christ’s Crucifixion than St John, whose Gospel contains more commentary on the religious significance of those events and leaves out some of the most dramatic of them altogether, notably the Last Supper and most of the Agony in the Garden. It is arguable indeed that, if it is treated as if it were simply a religious oratorio, the Matthew Passion succeeds better in performance than the John Passion. But in reality both Passions are much more than that; they are works of the most profound spirituality, in which performers and audience are all involved in a liturgical act of worship. It is therefore essential that the liturgical character of both works is preserved and that the music be made to flow naturally and seamlessly from the action-packed drama of the recitatives with choral interjections to the prayerful meditation of the arias and chorales and back again. In this beautifully nuanced performance of the Matthew Passion Angela Dugdale and her singers and orchestra brought out the contrasts of mood that lie within the text of the Passion and that Bach’s music conveys so movingly, without disturbing the monumental character of the work as a whole or lessening its dramatic and emotional impact. In this achievement she was ably assisted by soloists, chorus and orchestra alike, not least by her two superb continuo players, David Morgan on harpsichord and Bruce Grindlay on organ, with whom she achieved a wonderful rapport.

All four soloists gave moving and intelligent performances, with only occasional and insignificant inaccuracies and lapses of pitch. The soprano, Sarah Reed, has a rich bell-like voice with almost no vibrato, admirably suited to singing Bach’s music, but I found it a little too shrill and piercing in its upper register. This tended to destroy the balance with the chorus in her rendering of the ripieno part in the first chorus ‘Come ye daughters’, and again with the exquisitely played oboe d’amore obbligato in the aria ‘Jesus, Saviour, I am thine’. On the other hand she achieved a lovely balance with the contralto, Vera Cooke, in their duet ‘Behold my Saviour now is taken’. Vera Cooke, having given a rather tentative performance of the aria ‘Grief for Sin’, in which, however, she was ably supported by the fine playing of the flute obbligato, excelled herself in ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me’. In this emotionally very highly charged aria, her rendering of the words “regard my bitter weeping”, poignantly echoed the anguished melisma of the Evangelist’s “And he went out and wept bitterly” in the preceding recitative. The exacting role of the Evangelist was given a fine performance by Christopher Barnes, and Christopher Gadd was equally impressive as Jesus. I shall long remember Gadd’s phrasing of “one of you shall betray me” and “woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed”, which he sang almost sotto voce to thrilling effect. He also sang ‘Give, O give me back my Lord’ most movingly, his performance of this aria enhanced by the beautiful playing of the violin obbligato.

The chorus sang the chorales and the meditative choruses with great feeling and musicality, and in the interjections that form part of the narrative of the Passion, such as ‘Lest there be an uproar among the people’, ‘Thou that destroyest the temple of God’, ‘What is that to us?’ ‘Barabbas’ and ‘Let him be crucified’, their attack and clean ensemble created a tremendous sense of excitement and urgency. They maintained this clarity and precision especially well in the difficult chorus ‘Have lightnings and thunders’, in which they achieved an appropriately tempestuous effect.

The Matthew Passion is, of course, not all darkness and despair. On the contrary, its ending is as serene and as deeply imbued with quiet hopefulness as anything that Bach wrote. The change of mood begins after the rending of the veil of the temple with the sudden calm of the chorus ‘Truly this was the Son of God’, which is the emotional climax of the entire work. This is followed by the bass recitative ‘At evening, hour of calm and peace’, describing the Descent from the Cross, the bass aria (marked Andante piacevole) ‘Make thee clean, my heart’, and the last recitative, sung by all four soloists in succession, ‘And now the Lord to rest is laid’, which leads into the final chorus ‘In tears of grief’. Soloists, choir and orchestra performed these final movements with great feeling but without a trace of mawkishness, and thus brought this magnificent work to a truly peaceful conclusion.

How wonderful it would be if the lost St Mark Passion that Bach is known to have composed were to be discovered, and Angela Dugdale, with the same forces at her disposal as she had on this Good Friday, could add it next year to her cycle of performances of Bach’s religious masterpieces in the beautiful Church of St Nicholas, Salthouse!


John Villiers