EX CATHEDRA | "fresh and absolutely vital" - review of Bach St Matthew Passion

“It only takes one voice: to preach, to question, to testify, to betray, to sing, to be silent. The most prominent, and poignant, aspect of Ex Cathedra’s Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion was the telling way it highlighted the power and agency of individual voices. This is to take nothing away from the role and performance of the choir. Although Bach doesn’t give them quite the same level of raw invective as in his St John Passion, the combined forces of Ex Cathedra and the Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir made the most of their shifting group personality, as curious bystanders, gossiping rubberneckers and a full-blown, bloodthirsty mob.

“Yet what consistently drove the narrative were the solo voices, emerging from the crowd (literally, as all the soloists were positioned within the choir) to play their brief but pivotal roles. The centrepiece of the action was the polarisation created by Bradley Smith as Evangelist and Themba Mvula as Jesus. Here was, in every sense of the word, the crux of the drama, caught between Mvula’s emphatic but fittingly inscrutable delivery of Jesus’ taciturn responses, and Smith’s wildly emotional – often deeply moving – account of the gospel narrative. Mvula, placed front and centre on stage, deserves kudos for maintaining stoic composure during the lengthy sequences where he was mute, never breaking character. Smith, though, entirely lived up to his character’s title: here was a man literally evangelising, breathlessly articulating these ancient events as if not just his own but everybody else’s life (and soul) depended on it.

“Smith and Mvula together defined the limits of the Passion’s expressive palette; every other voice fell somewhere in between. Especially interesting in this context were the other basses, both of whom offered a huge contrast to Mvula’s enigmatic approach. Thomas Lowen’s account of “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” was deeply personal, an attitude reinforced in the late-stage aria “Gebt mir meinin Jesum wieder!”, articulated as heartbroken rage: “Give my Jesus back to me!” Doubling as Pilate, Lawrence White deftly turned between authority, elegance and tenderness, at times almost stealing the show.

“There were times when the force of these protagonists almost undermined what Jeffrey Skidmore was eliciting from the orchestra. For a long time their performance sounded surprisingly mild-mannered, almost workaday, though in hindsight Skidmore may have been wanting to downplay Part 1 in order to ramp things up in Part 2. Certainly, despite a couple of hairy moments when the timing or tuning went strangely awry, the orchestra sounded more and more enmeshed with and inseparable from the vocal throng, and by the time of Pilate’s fateful final exchanges with Jesus, things had really heated up, with everyone pushing through the narrative at speed. Skidmore ensured that intimacy was always maintained though, making the accompaniment of the aria “Aus Liebe” excruciatingly delicate, soprano Margaret Lingas outdoing herself in a wonderfully heartfelt outpouring, all the more impressive considering how exposed her solo was. Alto Martha McLorinan seamlessly continued from Bradley Smith’s distressing account of Peter’s weeping with an emotionally-charged “Erbarme mich”, while second tenor James Robinson’s rendition of “Geduld!” was pure lyricism, his gorgeous voice making the text utterly compelling: “Endure!”

“Ultimately though, perhaps as it should, everything came back to Bradley Smith. This entire Passion is from the perspective of just one voice, a former tax collector turned disciple turned evangelist, who hoped to preserve for posterity events he believed should never be forgotten. In this performance Smith practically embodied Matthew, in the process ensuring that both his 2,000-year old narrative and Bach’s 300-year old music remained fresh and absolutely vital.”