wed 17/04/2024

St Matthew Passion, Irish Baroque Orchestra, Whelan, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin review - fluency, fire and some jaw-dropping solos | reviews, news & interviews

St Matthew Passion, Irish Baroque Orchestra, Whelan, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin review - fluency, fire and some jaw-dropping solos

St Matthew Passion, Irish Baroque Orchestra, Whelan, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin review - fluency, fire and some jaw-dropping solos

Near-perfection in the greatest of works

Singers, IBO and Peter Whelan in St Patrick's CathedralAll images by Alfonso Leal de Ojo

After last year’s small-scale, big-impact Messiah in the Wigmore Hall, superlatives are again in order for the IBO’s performance of the greatest musical offering known to humankind. With the fluency established by that most supple of directors Peter Whelan at the start of Bach's opening chorus leading to the astonishing heft of nine singers and gleaming instrumentalists at its culmination, we knew we were in for something approaching perfection.

And that was to reckon without three soloists who, while they may not be big names outside the inner circle of musicians, simply couldn’t be surpassed in Bach for tone and meaning – Evangelist Nick Pritchard, Jesus/soloist/choral bass 1 Matthew Brook (pictured below on the left with Peter Whelan) and alto Hugh Cutting. As Helen Charlston’s “He was despised” plumbed the depths in last year’s Handel, so Cutting went further than one thought possible in “Erbarme dich”. Not only did this banish a usual prejudice of mine that only a mezzo or contralto is good enough here – Cutting’s colourings ran the gamut, including a clarion lower register – but I’d go so far as to say that this is the most dramatically expressive countertenor singing I’ve ever heard. Matthew Brook and Peter WhelanIt was theatrically of a piece with the intensity of Matthew Brook – no haloed icon of a Christus, but an anguished human being also conveying the fullest emotional range, and ending with such tenderness, joy and compassion in “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”. The emotional culmination of the epic came in his supremely powerful “Eli, Eli, lama Sabathani?” and Pritchard’s awed translation, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”.

This was an Evangelist exemplary in his handling of the German text, natural and without affectation, so that the high drama had fullest impact. Pritchard (pictured below) was backed to the hilt by the swiftness and clarity of the choral rejoinders, not just in the mob violence but above all in the invocation of divine thunder, lightning and fire, a theatrical high point of Part One.

Nick PritchardThe beauty of Whelan’s direction is that he knows not only when to make the numbers and chorales follow in swift succession, but when to allow space and silence. The instrumental solos sang as keenly as the voices, with piercingly lovely work from the oboe family (the acoustics of St Patrick's Cathedral certainly helped). If I single out violinist Simone Pirri in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”, it’s simply because his expression of joy in the playing gave us the uplift we needed in the middle of all that sorrow. But then Bach is as much a master of contrast as Handel, and the most resourceful colourist of all.

Democracy gave all bar one of the nine main singers doubling chorus a solo or two, and there was more lustre on display, above all from soprano Charlotte O’Hare, a tenor of equal but different distinction to Pritchard in Hugo Hymas, and true bass William Gaunt. But the important thing is the impact of the whole, and in that Whelan’s musicians covered the full spectrum.

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