What more splendid setting could there be for a performance of J S Bach’s challenging masterwork, the St Matthew Passion, than the Chapel of Tonbridge School? Seated in the sideways choir stalls, this was as much like attending the original performance in the Thomaskirche as you could get. From the opening moody chorus to the final gently sorrowing one, the Tonbridge Philharmonic held us in a sound world and spiritual theatre, which Bach would have recognised. Conductor Robin Morrish is to be congratulated, not only for his masterly control of the endlessly changing sections but for calling upon and getting from his troops outstanding concentration and attention to the musical detail from first to last and top to bottom.
St. Matthew Passion takes us through the drama of Christ’s betrayal by Judas, his trial, crucifixion and burial. It is an austere work giving us all of the sorrow without the uplifting resurrection which followed. However, Hugh Hetherington, as Evangelist, took us into the theatricality too. He captured the excitement of the crowd, the suspense before the arrest and even the crowing of the cock with his flexible vocal skills. The choir managed the interjections of the baying and ignorant people with some skill and characterisation.
Edward Price as Christus had presence. Clear tone and articulation carried the role but I could not help wondering about the consistently slow tempi. Jesus was a young man in his prime, aware of his destiny and scared. Here was the solemn reassurance of the Son of God but perhaps not the human element. By contrast, Jonathan Prentice (Bass) gave us much more light and shade. He maintained a richness of tone across his considerable range with great clarity.
Soprano, Wendy Nieper, has a fine, pure and flexible voice. There was some beautiful phrasing, for example, in the aria ‘Jesus, Saviour, I am Thine’ against the sprightly pair of oboe d’amore. Sadly, from either side of the chapel, her words were lost and needed to be brought forward in the mouth.
It is not often that a contralto role can be a starring one but in Susan Legg’s hands it really was the highlight of an impressive performance. She captured the sighing resignation of womankind left to endure and to pick up the pieces of man’s cruelty. Her refined and beautiful singing was moving in its restraint. In the aria, ‘Have mercy, Lord’ the accompaniment is a liquid violin solo, performed magnificently by Penny Howard, over a simple pizzicato bass. Susan Legg’s beautifully controlled tone, phrasing and articulation made this a poignant and memorable moment.
Finally, I must commend the double orchestra of strings and woodwinds. Not once did it overshadow the vocal lines neither was it ever weak. It provided just the right amount of support and some magical solo and ensemble performances. The choir was able to soar above it with little evidence of strain and great clarity of text. This was Tonbridge Phil at its best and a night to remember.