Friday 29 October 2021

Terrific sense of achievement: Bach's St Matthew Passion from Scherzo Ensemble, The Strand Consort, Mozaique Baroque Ensemble and a team of young soloists

Bach St Matthew Passion; Ruairi Bowen, Michael Ronan, Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Maria Hegele, Richard Robbins, Jack Comerford, The Strand Consort, Mozaique Baroque Ensemble, Matthew O'Keefe; Scherzo Ensemble at St Michael's Church, Stockwell

Bach St Matthew Passion; Ruairi Bowen, Michael Ronan, Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Maria Hegele, Richard Robbins, Jack Comerford, The Strand Consort, Mozaique Baroque Ensemble, Matthew O'Keeffe; Scherzo Ensemble at St Michael's Church, Stockwell

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 October 2021
Young professionals from London and Salzburg coming together for a series of self-organised performances of Bach's great passion; I catch the public dress rehearsal and am drawn in.

Scherzo Ensemble, director Matthew O'Keeffe, is a professional development platform for young singers which aims to cultivate a broader spectrum of career paths and employment possibilities in music and the arts. The group returned from COVID-hibernation in July this year with a production of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia at Longhope Opera, and now Scherzo Ensemble has collaborated with two other groups of young performers, The Strand Consort and Mozaique Baroque Ensemble to present a series of performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the chapel of King's College, London (28/10/21), Winchester College Chapel (30/10/21) and St Mark's Church, Bromley (31/10/21). Scheduling problems meant that I would not be able to attend any of these performances, but luckily they were giving a public dress rehearsal as a community performance in Stockwell, just up the road from where I live.

Matthew O'Keeffe conducted Bach's St Matthew Passion at St Michael's Church, Stockwell on Wednesday 27 October 2021 with Ruairi Bowen as the Evangelist, Michael Ronan as Christus, plus soloists Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Maria Hegele, Richard Robbins and Jack Comerford, The Strand Consort (a vocal ensemble formed by alumni of King's College, London) and Mozaique Baroque Ensemble (an ensemble originating at the Mozarteum in Salzburg) The ripieno choir in the first chorus was formed of children from the local community.

Audience members arriving half an hour before the concert were given a comprehensive music sheet and taken through a rehearsal with Matthew O'Keeffe and encouraged to sing the chorales (all of them). Matthew proved to be an engaging and encouraging director, and there was quite a good audience take-up on the participation. The performance was given in German (except for the the chorale, 'O sacred head sore wounded'), and an English translation was projected onto a screen along with images of sacred artwork curated by Dr Imogen Tedbury.

Bach's sons referred to the St Matthew Passion as the Great Passion, not just because of its sheer length but also the performing forces needed. Bach's other passions, and those by other composers that he performed in Leipzig, generally fitted into the Lutheran tradition of a relatively compact instrumental ensemble and vocal forces which could be boiled down to just a single voice per part. The result is focused and compact. The St Matthew Passion is different, double chorus, two orchestras, two of everything in fact. Any performance is an event, and here all the performers were young and as Matthew O'Keeffe said to the audience, that was the point. There was terrific sense of achievement about this performance and energy too, plus a sense of incredible focus.

The Mozaique Baroque Ensemble fielded one musician per part, so we had two string quartets, double bass, two flutes, two oboes, organ, harpsichord, theorbo and viola da gamba. Behind them were the 16 singers of the Strand Consort, with soloists at the front. The relative narrowness of the chancel in the church meant that the performing forces were ranked quite deeply. 

The instrumental forces might have been on the small side, but sound quality, however, was strong and vibrant, each player contributing significantly and the resulting opening chorus had an impressive warmth of sound. Here, and in other large scale choruses, the choir sang Choir 1 whilst the soloists sang Choir 2, which in the question and answer form of the music proved highly effective and added an interesting spatial dynamic quality to the performance. The children looked somewhat bewildered, placed in the spotlight at the front of a church full of people, made a fine contribution to the total.

Matthew O'Keeffe's direction for the first chorus was quite relaxed, allowing the music to flow yet shaping individual phrases. Throughout the evening this was his approach, a sense of the music simply arising, though speeds were reasonably fleet as they could be with compact forces, and in the individual arias the dance-quality of a lot of the music was brought out. Throughout we had a lovely sense of the sheer variety of timbre and texture that Bach created. There were plenty of fine individual instrumental solos, with a strong ensemble too.

Whilst the English text was projected, the diction of the singers was such that with a reasonable smattering of German and a knowledge of the story (!) you could follow easily. This was particularly true of the Evangelist, Ruari Bowen who combined a terrific attention to the text with a finely vibrant tone. He started off quite strongly, almost trenchantly but as the story developed he used a remarkable range of timbre, tone, dynamic and intensity to heighten the effect of the story, making the key moments highly dramatic indeed, and moments like the renting of veil of the Temple were violent indeed. This was complemented by the singing of Michael Ronan as Christus, who brought a wonderful sense of calm to the role. Bach gives Christus' pronouncements in this work an aura all of their own, accompanied by strings, and Ronan leaned into this so that his singing seemed to exist in a different plane. But he was eminently believable, and there was no sense of the gnomic pronouncement which some soloists bring to this role.

The four main soloists were hard-working, singing the solos (which Bach distributed over eight singers, four from each choir) and, where necessary, choir two. Lauren Lodge-Campbell brought a lovely fluidity to her singing, along with a nice ease to the ornamentation. She was complemented by beautifully detailed playing from the flutes in 'Blute nur, du liebes Herz!', and she gave a great sense of joy to 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken', here with some lovely oboe playing. 'Aus Liebe' again featured nicely fluid flute playing and light, floating tone from Lodge-Campbell, with Bowen's Evangelist really breaking the mood at the end.

Maria Hegele began  with poised, well-modulated tones and a lovely ease to her delivery. This characterised her whole performance, even the more elaborate passages, and she made each word count too. 'Buß und Reu' danced, with a lovely flute counterpart, and Part 2 began with strong, expressive account of 'Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin!'. 'Erbarme dich' featured an elegantly expressive solo from the leader of orchestra 1 and Hegele's singing was poised and mellow, with shapely phrases and a sense of slow build to the aria. Her final aria, with a pair of oboes to the fore, was strong in tone and texture.

The two women blended beautifully for their duet at the end of Part One, poised yet moving and contrasting finely with violence of the chorus.

Tenor Richard Robins began his recitative in intense fashion, singing 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' with vibrant tone and making the more elaborate passages quite thrilling. Plangent tone led to anger in his recitative in Part 2, leading to a terrific account of ' Geduld, Geduld!' with strongly characterful viola da gamba playing, and overall a great sense of drama.

Baritone Jack Comerford brought a great sense of character to his solos, and a lovely resonant tone. His aria at the end of Part 1 featured the nice contrast of serious intent and dancing rhythms. 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!', taken at quite a lick, featured a violin solo of great elan (from the leader of orchestra 2), full of both poise and energy. In 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' we had more terrific viola da gamba playing along with Comerford's moving, concentrated performance. There was a slight orchestral hiccup at the start of 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein', but once started Comerford, unphased, proved focused and resonant, profoundly moving and complemented by some lovely timbres and textures in the orchestra.

Throughout the chorus sang with a lovely mellow, even tone and a great attention to the words. In the turbae there were moments of vivid character and even violence, the singers relishing the contrasts that Bach gives his choirs. Throughout there was strongly characterful playing from the orchestras, with a relish of timbre and texture which meant that even the larger scale moments felt like a real ensemble rather than chorus accompanied by (subservient) orchestra, which can happen in this music.

There was great immediacy and communication, the young performers more than held our attention despite a church which seemed to be getting steadily colder. Not everything was quite perfect, but there was nothing that could not be tweaked and I suspect that the audiences at the performances on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday were going to be in for a treat. At the end there was rightly a sense of achievement, but it was just a case of getting through it but creating something rather moving and highly considered.

Further details of the performances in Winchester and Bromley from TicketSource.

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