St. John's Chapel played host to the Fairhaven singersKATIE KASPERSON WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion) is one of the jewels of the choral repertory among the ranks of Mozart’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, and Haydn’s Creation. The oratorio tells the story of the final days of Christ: from the Last Supper to his crucifixion and entombment. Such a concert as this might not be possible were it not for Felix Mendelssohn, who revived the work in 1829, for its first performance outside Leipzig, granting it a legitimate claim in the classical repertory.

A similar ‘dusting off’ story was painted by the Fairhaven Singers who, as their website was keen to point out, have not sung the St Matthew Passion for 20 years. This time around, led by Ralph Woodward, they teamed up with prominent soloists (many of whom are Cambridge alumni), singers from the Stephen Perse Foundation, and the Florilegium ensemble, an orchestral group that specialises in baroque repertoire, and plays with period instruments.

“Allsop’s tone left the chapel feeling enveloped in sumptuousness”

As the light dwindled outside, the music began well-paced, and the mighty entrances of the choirs brought us firmly into the action, setting the tone for the next three hours. The Florilegium ensemble provided sturdy support for the singers with fabulous playing, particularly from the winds, who were crystal-clear and graceful throughout. The strings, however, struggled with intonation at times, creating a regrettably messy sound, though this was compensated for by their hauntingly ethereal accompaniment to the voice of Christ.

As the Evangelist, Simon Wall (despite some cracks and strains) proved a solid red thread throughout the narrative, with warm tone and impeccable enunciation. James Birchall’s Bass was nimble, although “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!”, though otherwise well sung, fell victim to the unrelenting tempo of Woodward. Tenor Bradley Smith, who seemed to get off to a bit of a rocky start, found quick redemption in the following number, in dialogue with the lush-sounding choir. While Phillipa Hyde’s soprano was pure of tone, she struggled to be heard over the orchestra.

The undisputed star was David Allsop, whose countertenor was gorgeous in the acoustic of John’s chapel. “Erbarme dich…” was likely the most memorable moment of the night; impeccable playing by the orchestra (especially the violin solo) matched with Allsop’s tone left the chapel feeling enveloped in sumptuousness.


Mountain View

Beans on Toast at The Portland Arms

While there were a few tricky passages that the choir stumbled over, Woodward clearly prepared the Fairhaven singers well, delivering sensitivity and clarity in its most delicate moments, and passion, ferocity, and verve in others. This fine balance was especially evident in the fourth instance of the famous passion chorale, where the choir sang acapella, each part blending into the other magnificently.

This reading of the Matthew Passion was at its best in “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” where Allsop and Hyde’s voices intertwined beautifully, while the choir interjected with crisp entrances. Bringing us further into the narrative and Bach’s story, it was decided to have the audience sing along to the final instance of the passion chorale: a decision that paid off in the deeply moving results.

Despite its bumps, this was a capable reading of Bach’s magnificent score; upon leaving John’s and looking up at the clear bright sky filled with stars above, all felt right in the world.