A LITHE St Matthew Passion, played on period instruments whose raw
timbres, viola da gamba not least, pluck at the heartstrings, is something I
associate with the Gabrieli Consort, Peter Holman, Hermann Max, or the
glorious countertenor-cum-conductor René Jacobs. So it was a delightful
surprise to find such a performance in deepest Dorset — and one, to boot,
conducted by a bishop.
From time to time, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd David Stancliffe,
returns to his roots as a former organ scholar of Trinity College, Oxford. The
authentic performance of Baroque music remains his chief musical love. He knows
it through and through, from Lully and Gilles to Telemann and Bach, and he
demonstrated this with a profoundly moving performance of Bach’s “great”
Passion at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Blandford Forum.
Returns to the rostrum are de rigueur in Salisbury Close, for years
the home of Sir Edward Heath. What struck me here was the way this Blandford
performance, at 6.30 on a Sunday, sat comfortably in the guise of an extended
parish evensong. Bishop Stancliffe, lending a touch of apt colour in a maroon
waistcoat, reminded us at the outset that where the interval came, a sermon was
The musical approach surely goes back to Bach’s Dresden precursor Schütz: an
honest, straight narration of the Gospel story, climaxing devastatingly in the
words “Truly, this man was the Son of God”: “
Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen.” With the full text printed
in parallel, it was possible to savour the Passion narrative in detail, and,
through Bach’s reflective arias, an exploration of its import.
The solo singers were patchy, but impassioned: Hugh Hetherington, who fared
best in “Geduld, Geduld”; and the appealing soprano Alison Pickard,
who sounded part boyish, part instrument-like, in her enchanting exchange with
Baroque oboes, “Er hat uns Allen”, and in
“Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (with transverse flute), and the
grieving duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”.
Her duet partner, the alto Kate Hamilton, recalled not so much Anne-Sofie
von Otter (“Erbarme dich”) as the great Kathleen Ferrier in the
fabulous lament “Ach, Golgatha”, and that famed aria “If my tears be
unavailing” (“Können Tränen”).
Despite a plaintive, dark, glowing Christus from Greg Sanderson (and the
occasional editing query), it was Bruce Saunders’s initially uncertain, yet
always engaging, baritone arias that told: “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”,
“Gerne will ich mich bequemen”, “Komm, süsses Kreuz”, and, above all, the
superb “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (a Fischer-Dieskau calling-card).
The orchestra proved its reliability latterly, after an edgy start: much
lovely solo work was in evidence, notably from Theresa Caudle, leading the
Bishop’s quality ensemble; only once did we nearly have three speeds at once.
The spirited attack, dramatic interplay, and sensitive touches from the
almost scratch choir (twice abetted by young singers from Dunbury First School)
constantly uplifted: “Sind Blitze, sind Donner” was superb; and those
touching repetitions of “Wohin?” were vivid.
Several characterful solos, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Peter, emerged. But the
laurels went to the darting Evangelist, Julian Podger, arguably the only one
(leading strings apart) who fully grasped the long-breathed phrasing,
interpretative subtlety, and refined ritenuti that flowed from the
Bishop’s controlling right arm. To hear these two making music together was an
education in itself.