Making a triumphant return to the orchestra he brought to international class, to one of the world’s finest concert-halls he did so much to create, and to the city whose centre has accordngly been regenerated, Sir Simon Rattle bestrode Symphony Hall like a colossus at the weekend.
Yet there was no sense of ego as two packed houses (not a spare ticket to be had) greeted their hero adoringly. We were soon reassured that music-making was the essence of the matter: that music was in fact Bach’s St Matthew Passion one of the greatest works in the history of artistic creation – and one which is not normally in Rattle’s repertoire.
So he brought to the piece a bright-eyed freshness, pointing up the dance-rhythm templates which lie behind so many of these movements as they describe, comment and reflect upon the awesome events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion. I have rarely heard the CBSO and its huge CBSO Chorus deliver with such lightness of touch (much credit to Simon Halsey for his choral training – and his direction of the brilliant CBSO Children’s Chorus).
Surtitles assisted listeners’ understanding of the flow of the narrative, and a decidedly dramatic style of stage-presentation (Rattle conducts a Peter Sellars production of the work at this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival) added an extra element of communication. Engagement from the soloists was vivid, baritone Thomas Quasthoff particularly involved, but outstanding among them all was Mark Padmore. Singing the huge part of the Evangelist without a score, his presence compelled throughout all three hours of the performance: even when not singing himself, he was constantly immersed, and frequently outraged, at the unfolding of this terrible story.
And, piquantly, he was unconsciously paying tribute to another great Evangelist, the internationally-renowned tenor Philip Langridge, who had died on Friday night, to the immense sadness of music-lovers the world over.
Dedicating Saturday’s performance to Langridge, Rattle remembered that he had sung with the CBSO over 100 times, and was very much a member of “the CBSO family”. And as the lightness of performance moved towards the eventual sustained outpouring of pent-up grief in the huge final chorus, our reaction to the crucifixion was mingled with fond thoughts of Philip.