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Review: St Matthew Passion at The Sage Gateshead

Rob Barnes went along to The Sage Gateshead to catch a compelling performance of St Mathew Passion

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The Sage Gateshead Music Centre with the Baltic
The Sage Gateshead Music Centre with the Baltic

We can thank Felix Mendelssohn’s grandmother, Bella Solamon, for gifting him a copy of the score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The work had long since disappeared from view following Bach’s death over 70 years previously.

Mendelssohn’s first presentation of this work in Berlin in 1829 began the revival of this profound work, which continues apace in today’s concert schedules around the world. In Hall One at Sage Gateshead it was the performance by Royal Northern Sinfonia, their chorus and distinguished soloists which really caught the eye in the busy Easter schedule.

Bach’s St Matthew Passion has become as much of a fixture at Easter as Handel’s Messiah at Christmas.

The performance takes three hours but it simply sped by as we were overwhelmed by the sheer excellence of all on stage, helped by a full translation into English in the programme and house-lights kept on to aid reading (thank you, Sage!).

We saw the traditional concert setting of one orchestra and choir opposite another – it’s not intended to be competitive but if it brought an edge to the event, I’ll score an honourable draw between opposing leaders Mr Creswick and Ms Humphreys. James Oxley’s lead role as the evangelist, sung without any recourse to the score, was powerful and memorable, and he was able to move around the performance area to retain a focal point for the story.

The choruses and chorales provide the framework for the Passion story and the work of the choirs was uniformly delightful, sustaining the overall performance and maintaining a fine balance with the orchestras. Conductor Thomas Zehetmair obviously relished the opportunity to conduct this work and lead such a stellar cast.

This was a compelling enactment of the story of Christ’s betrayal and subsequent crucifixion. Every soloist, chorus and orchestra member, played their part in ensuring that this performance of St Matthew Passion will stay in the memory for a long time.

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