Review: Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion

First published in the Guardian on 15 April, 2014

St Matthew Passion
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There can be no hurry when it comes to the St Matthew Passion. Plenty of performances scoot along, almost apologetic for the three-hours-plus that Bach’s full score takes to unfold, only slowing up to wallow in the crowd-pleasers. Not so in this thoughtful, lyrical and beautifully spacious Palm Sunday account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Whereas Butt’s steering of the more concise St John Passion is thrilling for its racy dramatic thrust, here he embraced the Matthew’s scope for expansive reflection. The storytelling never dragged but the arias were platforms for deep contemplation: often Butt didn’t conduct them at all, leaving expressive direction up to the singers and the lithe continuo band.

There are no stars in the Dunedin setup: the eight singers work as soloists and chorus, and Butt selects voices for their colour and artistry rather than their size or flash factor. The result is an ensemble that’s unusually integrated; voices and orchestra melded into one dark, seductively grainy sound. There was some lopsidedness among singers: alto Clare Wilkinson’s solos were full of intimate, unfussy pathos but she tended to get lost in the mix, while Joanne Lumm’s piercing soprano dominated choruses. Jeremy Budd made a diligent if unmemorable Evangelist; Robert Davies’s gracious Mache dich was deeply moving. There was an excellent ripieno from the National Boys Choir ranged across the back of the stage, though perhaps it was unfair to expect the smallest voices to travel the longest distance.

The orchestral playing was uniformly magnificent. The sound was warm, energetic and full of character, and there were gorgeous solo turns from violinists Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel; his spry runs in Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder were unashamedly playful. The St Matthew’s Passion is meant for meditation, but also for entertainment.