Review: Dunedin Consort’s Matthew Passion

First published in the Guardian on 29 March, 2015

Bach’s St Matthew Passion begins as though it has already begun. “Come, ye daughters,” sings the chorus over a churning, darkly surging orchestra; “help me lament”. From the opening bars we’re plunged into a drama that implicates every person in the room — Bach leaves no chance of bystanders, even if today the chorales aren’t quite the hum-along tunes they were for his original 1727 congregation.

There’s always a huge amount to enjoy in the annual Passion performances from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, whose eight chorus members take the solo parts and whose period instrument ensemble is small, ballsy and light on its feet. It’s tantalising to discover what Butt’s scholarship will bring to the surface in each fresh account — there’s a real sense of the score being alive, of the drama being told for the first time. And indeed what stood out this year was the storytelling, vivid and gripping. That opening chorus had a conspiratorial kind of intimacy, as if gathering us close around the hearth, and later dialogue played out with the rhetorical flair of a proper whodunit.

Much praise is due to the brilliantly paced, lucidly articulated narration of Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist: he seems to get better every time. Soprano Anna Dennis was suffering a sore throat but still sounded beautiful; alto Clare Wilkinson and bass Robert Davies were both glowingly expressive in their arias (Davies’s Mache dich is always a highlight, radiating dignity). The second chorus made for less captivating soloists but worked well as an ensemble, and while the acoustic in St Mary’s was a bit fuzzy — a barn of gothic Victoriana — the orchestral playing was irresistible: loose, elastic, full of charisma. Stylish solo turns from flautist Katy Bircher, violinists Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel and gamba player Jonathan Manson all deserve mention.