An exceptionally poignant and stirring St Matthew Passion with Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Jack Stephens
March 26, 2024

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra | St Matthew Passion

24 March, 2024, Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts, Monash University

Michael Fulcher, Christopher Watson, Nicholas Dinopoulos, Amy Moore, Alexander Ritter, Andrew Goodwin, David Greco, Polyphonic Voices, The Choir of Trinity College, Australian Boys’ Choir, Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

The magnitude of the endeavour to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s crowning work, the Matthäus-Passion, cannot be overstated. If two orchestras, three choirs, and six soloists were not enough – the complexity of doing the performance with period instruments, in particular the use of oboe da caccia and oboe d’amore, adds another level of difficulty, requiring a huge lead-in to organise. But the hard work, grit and determination of the Monash Performing Arts Centres, Melbourne Baroque Orchestra, Polyphonic Voices, the Choir of Trinity College, Melbourne, Australian Boys’ Choir and Michael Fulcher paid off, culminating in an exceptionally poignant and stirring experience last Sunday afternoon.

From the opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen”, the emotional depth and commitment of the choirs and orchestras is set. Fulcher’s exceptional command of all forces was clear from the start, and the steady but pulsating tempo allowed for two of the country’s leading choirs and the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra to thrive. Paired with the pure and vibrant ripieno chorus of the Australian Boys’ Choir, we see that Bach did not intend for the dialogue to be one-directional from performers to audience, but the distinct choirs and orchestras have also been tasked to listen to the other, and then to respond – an often-overlooked aspect of Bach’s orchestration of the work that I think has profound consequences.

At the conclusion of the final chord of the opening chorus, the audience was met with a somewhat startling yet delightful surprise – where despite the presence of towering curtains and vast carpet, there was an almost cathedral-like reverb – making the most of the variable acoustic system within the Alexander Theatre at the Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts. An additional welcome surprise was the use of surtitles above the performers – where in other performances the immediacy of the language in Bach’s writing is often lost when reading programme translations, here the performance was aided brilliantly and exemplified their foremost commitment to the text being delivered.

The commitment to textual interpretation was particularly evident in the performances of Evangelist Christopher Watson and Christus Nicholas Dinopoulos, complemented by the continuo team consisting of cellist Rosanne Hunt and chamber organist Donald Nicolson. Watson’s pristine tenor voice, coupled with Dinopoulos’ warm authoritative bass, enveloped by Christ’s ‘halo’ of strings, conveyed the narrative with due solemnity while also capturing its dramatic essence.

Responding to the narrative unfolding before them were four exceptional soloists. Soprano Amy Moore delivered a breathtaking ‘Aus Liebe’ paired with flauto traverso Greg Dikmans. Embodying the weeping Mother of Judas, Moore’s exquisite phrasing and impeccable control brought each nuance of the text to life, evoking a profound sense of empathy and introspection in the audience.

Presenting the great alto aria, ‘Erbarme dich’, rising countertenor Alexander Ritter and Tim Willis playing violin obbligato delivered a spellbinding performance. Ritter’s rich voice intertwined seamlessly with Willis’s poignant violin, creating a breathtaking rendition that exuded beauty and emotion.

A noteworthy highlight was Laura Vaughan on Viola da Gamba, showcasing her virtuosity in two of the most challenging works in the instrument’s repertoire: the tenor aria “Geduld!” and the bass aria “Komm, süßes Kreuz”. Vaughan demonstrated consummate mastery over her instrument, and paired with two of the country’s great interpreters of this music, Andrew Goodwin and David Greco, it was a privilege to witness. Goodwin’s nuanced expression, impeccable technique, and unwavering musicality left a lasting impression of artistry and excellence. In ‘Mache dich’, sorrow is released into hope, and Greco’s deep lyricism, sensitive shading and joyous dialogue with the strings were particularly affecting.

But perhaps most significantly, the deliberate interpretation of each chorale was a joy to behold. There are eight chorales in the St Matthew Passion; one is heard five times, another three and another twice, and the chorales punctuate the Passion narrative fifteen times. It is these moments that are arguably the most significant to Bach, as it spoke to how the congregation (who historically would have joined in the chorales), would respond in one unified voice to the Scripture being presented. Almost any choir can sing a chorale, but it takes a great choir to bring nuance and depth to these chorales, each one having a distinct purpose and meaning in where it sits within the narrative. The combined forces of the Choir of Trinity College, Melbourne and Polyphonic Voices not only met but surpassed this challenge, delivering a profoundly moving and communal reflection on the tragedy that unfolds.

Bach’s St Matthew Passion is so rarely programmed in this country, and the Australian public is all the poorer for it. It is exciting to see this bold vision from the Monash Performing Arts Centres, collaborating with esteemed choral conductors, singers and their choirs such as Fulcher, Watson, and Dinopoulos. Moreover, it highlights the exceptional depth of talent among historically-informed musicians in the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra, and solo vocalists from across the country. Let us hope that similar exemplary productions of this pinnacle work within the Western music canon are duly scheduled for performance.

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Guest reviewer | Jack Stephens

Jack Stephens BMusHon(Syd) BA(Syd) BCom(Syd) AmusADist(AMEB) is the Director of Music at St Paul’s College. Jack is responsible for facilitating and developing the musical life of the College, this include directing the Choir of St Paul’s College, composed of 32 students that sing Evensong each week, as well as regular performance within professional engagements. Jack has been a soloist with the Choir of Christ Church St Laurence, Bach Akademie Australia, Victoria Chorale, and was an Associate Artist with the Song Company. He is currently studying for his doctorate looking at the staging of Bach’s Passions.

Alexander Ritter | Amy Moore | Andrew Goodwin | Australian Boys Choir | Christopher Watson | David Greco | Melbourne Baroque Orchestra | Michael Fulcher | Nicholas Dinopoulos | Polyphonic Voices | The Choir of Trinity College


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