Good Friday seems to have all but disappeared this year: all the shops open, doing a roaring trade, inane pop music on local radio, and even horse-racing (when did the day's respectful ban on gambling end?).
Thank goodness for the event which year on year reminds us of what the day is really all about, Ex Cathedra's annual performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion -- and there is certainly a need for it, as Symphony Hall was packed for this gruelling but ultimately cathartic epic.
And this year was particularly special. James Rutherford had had to withdraw from the role of Jesus, and his replacement Grant Doyle, who only began rehearsal for this pivotal part on Thursday, emerged triumphant. Loads of adrenaline surely helped, not least when he stepped down and sang as a mere bass the emotionally releasing aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (the helpful surtitle translations were expertly managed throughout).
Doyle had only met his Evangelist (Andrew Tortise) on the very morning of this concert, but their empathy was remarkable, and Tortise's high tenor delivered a gripping performance all through this lengthy afternoon which seemed to fly by.
The fluent tempi selected by conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, so deeply immersed in the spirit of this wonderful score, set into relief the few slow-moving arias, not least the "Komm, susses Kreuz", where the grinding viola da gamba obbligato in times long past seemed excruciatingly penitential, but which here, in the nimble hands of Juan Manuel Quintana, actually said it all.
Skidmore cultivated a full, forward tone from Ex Cathedra and its Academy, and, where appropriate, an almost operatic mode of delivery from his soloists, such as in Martha McLorinan's engaging "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand". Among all the other outstanding solo contributions, mention must be made of soprano Katie Trethewey and tenor Bradley Smith, their emotional engagement with the text and music so vividly communicated.
In their first-ever collaboration in this work, the CBSO accompanied Ex Cathedra with a fine sense of style, vibrato-less strings, woodwind now cutting, now dulcet, continuo continually alert.
I wonder if this collaboration could go further? I found myself thinking of Act III of Wagner's Parsifal, with its consolatory and joyous Good Friday Music. Could there be an arrangement whereby St Matthew and Parsifal Act III alternated here at Symphony Hall on Good Fridays, with St Matthew being given at the entirely suitable Town Hall on Maundy Thursday when not at Symphony Hall? The CBSO could certainly supply players for both, and it would bring the CBSO Chorus into the mix.
Just a self-indulgent thought.