Birmingham Bach Choir * * * * *
Review by Christopher Morley
Despite becoming a regular important fixture in the city's concert calendar, Birmingham Bach Choir's annual performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion never seems to lose its freshness.
Indeed, for some it carries a constantly renewed religious impulse stronger than anything communicated in church nowadays.
Particularly strong this year was the impact of the Gethsemane scene, with outrage at the cowardly flight of the disciples after Jesus's arrest, rolling basses in the "Have lightings and thunders forgotten their fury?" chorus, and an ear for detail from conductor Paul Spicer which gave significance to articulation in the English Chamber Orchestra's accompanied recitatives.
In fact, this whole sequence was a microcosm of Spicer's rhythmic, forward-moving approach, beautifully phrased, to this masterly score, which paces action and reflection so dramatically.
Also adding to the vigour of this account was the use of a brand new translation of the libretto, Nicholas Fisher and John Russell preparing a vivid, naturally-inflected version which sits comfortably on the notes and in which key words emerge with proper emphasis, shrewdly underlined by Spicer.
Diction is an important aspect of the Bach Choir's success, the singers preparing their utterances well in advance of delivery in order to secure maximum immediacy of effect.
And a further element in this gripping reading which left some audience members moist-eyed was the wonderful team of soloists.
Soprano Elizabeth Watts was natural and fresh-voiced, alto William Towers grippingly charismatic, late-replacement tenor Brad Cooper compelling, and bass Christopher Purves sturdy and authoritative.
In the Evangelist's role, Christopher Gillett sang with his customary intelligence and involvement, and Paul Whelan's Christus was dignified and all-too-painfully human.
The amazing moment when Bach robs his utterances of their string halo and substitutes snarling organ chords was shattering.