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Singing the St Matthew Passion

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of those absolute towering masterpieces of music – of any music, written anywhere and at any time. I’ve never sung the whole piece before – in fact I think I’d only previously sung the opening and closing choruses. I have to admit that I regarded it with some trepidation – the score is enormous, with 68 separate numbers, some of them subdivided into further sections. But our director Jonny Lo’s finely-paced rehearsals have put paid to any misgivings.

It’s been quite different from the usual Manchester Chamber Choir experience … if indeed there is such a thing! For the concert in Macclesfield on 25 March we have a choir towards the upper end of our usual size – about 45 singers altogether. But for the concert in Bridgewater Hall on 14 April, an extra 20 or so singers are joining us. For most of the rehearsals – which have been going on since the beginning of March – the full choral forces were there. This made a rich and full sound, with enough numbers to give a certain feeling of safety, without the exposed feeling we are used to enjoying in MCC!

But at the most recent rehearsal, it was just the singers who would be at Macclesfield who were taking part, and it felt more intimate, more exposed, requiring us to be absolutely self-reliant with regards to entries and pitching – a chamber choir, in fact – with the capacity to achieve a wonderful pianissimo as well as the fortissimo called for by Bach’s angry, tumultuous crowd scenes.

The St Matthew Passion is a work that has a great many different solo parts. I have the great honour of taking the smallest of all of these – the part of Second Pontifex (High Priest), which involves about 20 seconds of duetting with another bass, one of the MCC’s newest recruits, Robert Medina. Blink and you’ll miss it!

For me the chorales are the heart of the work. They are such a pleasure to sing, with startling but subtly clothed harmonic shifts used by Bach to accentuate the emotion of the words. They come as a calm respite after the often vigorous and spikily difficult choruses, and are a chance for the choir to join together as one: for much of the piece we are separated into Choir 1 and Choir 2, and for many of the choruses we are in eight independent parts.

The world has changed immeasurably in the 290 years since the St Matthew Passion was written, but this music speaks to us so very powerfully – Bach really was a master of his art.

Jesus on the cross as in St Mathew's account of the Passion of Christ

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