JS Bach is often cited as the greatest ever composer and the St Matthew Passion as his greatest work. Setting the text of Chapters 24-27 of St Matthew's Gospel, it tells the story of Christ's last days up to the crucifixion. First performed on Good Friday in 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach was Kapellmeister, it was not revived until around a century later, when the poet Goethe identified something of 'elemental significance' in the music. Both Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams championed the Passion, the latter so fiercely that he would leave the platform glaring if anyone dared break his rule of absolutely no applause during or after the performance. This was three hours of music beyond all other music.
Tonight Reading Bach Choir and the City of London Chamber Players performed the work with such intensity that, between their arias, even the soloists seemed lost in its sublimity. Reading Town Hall, with its crisp acoustic and split choir seating, was perfect for the work's two orchestras and choirs. Taplow Boys' Choir sang beautifully from the balcony.
Three hours passed so easily. The St Matthew Passion is powerful musical drama, built around a framework of spare recitative narration by the tenor Evangelist (Christopher Watson). Choir soloists and six professionals took the principal roles and the choruses sing everyman. Picander's libretto bears fervent witness to the Passion story. With such poignant music, recent attempts at staging the work seem entirely superfluous.
The London Chamber Players played period instruments, achieving a highly articulate and refined performance that never overwhelmed the singers. Soprano Esther Levin and Counter-tenor Christopher Warwick sang with beautiful, relaxed simplicity the famously difficult duet with choral interventions 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' - 'moon and light are extinguished by sorrow because my Jesus is captured'. This is followed by the challenging and dramatic chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner', so popular in the 19th century that performances were frequently stopped by audiences demanding a reprise.
Against a single, shockingly dissonant diminished chord, the choir made an electrifying call for Barabbas and not Christ to be saved. Counter-tenor Warwick again showed his quality in the difficult 'Ach Golgotha'. In a number of arias bass Robert MacDonald was gorgeously partnered by the agile musicianship of Viola da Gambist Charles Medlam.
The St Matthew Passion ends in sublime acceptance of the redemption offered by Christ's sacrifice. Caroline Trevor was mesmerising in No. 60 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' (see Jesus, has his hand stretched out to grasp us). David Stuart sang Jesus with elegance and authority. He was almost transfigured as the dying Christ, in the moments when he lost his musical 'halo' - the glowing strings that accompany him in all other arias.
The choir sing 'When my heart is most full of fear, then snatch me from my fears by the power of your anguish and pain' and soon a final triumphant chorus celebrates Christ's victory 'Your grave... shall be...for the soul a resting place. In utmost bliss my eyes close in slumber there'.
Led by JanJoost van Elburg, Reading Bach Choir is achieving the highest musical standards. The fine English tradition of choral music-making is alive and well in the county town.