Ex Cathedra St Matthew Passion


Ex Cathedra at Symphony Hall *****
I have attended performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion since the time it was almost contemporary music, and have endured so many heavy, portentous renditions, mainly emanating from self-regarding metropolitan societies, going through the sacrosanct motions year after year.
Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra will have none of that. Such an enthusiast, who brings detailed scholarship and documentary revelations into his vivid accounts of everything he touches, Skidmore is always looking for ways to breathe life into the music in question, recreating the circumstances of its origins – though I doubt even he could have imagined the big band playing ABBA selections as we entered the foyer.
Once we got over that culture shock, one certainly unlooked-for on a Good Friday, there was much to admire in the freshness of Skidmore's approach, opening with Alec Roth's adroit Chorale Prelude on "Sei gegrusset, Jesu gutig" (with its foreshadowings of the pedal treads of the Passion's opening chorus), deftly rendered by organist Rupert Jeffcoat, followed by Roth's vocal arrangement, dedicated to Ex Cathedra's Academy of Vocal Music, who led an enthralling performance here.
And so we came to the Passion itself, flowing seamlessly in this presentation, soloists emerging from the two choruses in smooth choreography (though some rising and sitting was occasionally ragged), with authentically dance-like subtexts to many of the arias, and a wonderful sense of drama and reflection. The whole phalanx of solo contributions was reliably impressive, with Harriet Hougham Slade outstanding as a late alto substitute, led by the heroic, engaged Evangelist of Bradley Smith and the dignified Jesus of Themba Mvula; he also prefaced Part II with a moving reading of a Dietrich Bonhoffer text.
The Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra played with its usual bite and elegance. Woodwind solos were now pastel, now pungent, though the violin solo in "Erbarme Dich" was slightly under-projected, unlike the spirited one in "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder!", Juan Manuel Quintana's viola da gamba solos were their customary joy, unlike the teeth-grinding penitence of those we endured half-a-century ago from someone who was obviously engaged because they were the only person in the country who owned such an instrument.
There were helpful surtitles complementing the beautifully-produced programme-book, but highlighting one or two unfortunate translations in the macaronic text (English for the chorales); can we really read (and sing) with a straight face "Oh bleeding head surrounded", when the traditional "O sacred head sore wounded" said it all so perfectly?
The presentation was rounded off with a dignified Jacob Handl motet "Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus". The following congregational "Now Thank we all our God" was too jolly for my chastened mood.
Christopher Morley

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