“It’s not a performance. It’s an act of worship. You come out on your knees”.
The words of a senior member of my first choir, where I learnt Bach’s St Matthew Passion – not just great music but one of the pinnacles of civilisation – forty odd years ago and at an impressionable age. I had asked him to recommend a good performance where I could hear the work as a whole and from the outside rather than as a junior bass in Choir Two.
Which led me, one Saturday in March 1972, to the 12th century church of St Bartholomew-the-Great Smithfield, next to Bart’s Hospital in the City, for what turned out to be a formative musical experience. The conductor was Dr Paul Steinitz, a pioneer of baroque performances done in period style, with small forces but modern instruments, using the London Bach Society which he formed and led. He did it annually and I ended up going five years in a row.
But that first performance is the one that stuck. Admittedly it had a lot going for it. Ian Partridge, mellifluous and incomparably eloquent as the Evangelist. John Noble sonorous and sometimes angry – a properly robust Christ. Elly Ameling shining in the soprano solos. And Janet Baker – a year off being Dame’d and without doubt the greatest singer I have ever heard, and ever expect to.
It delighted me, already a seasoned recorder of performances from the radio, to find BBC engineers installed in the church and doing a balance test before anything started. And the programme announced that the conductor would invite the audience/congregation to join in, twice, with the familiar Passion Chorale – a rare privilege I have never experienced anywhere else.
What was immediately striking was the use of vivid ornamentation by the soloists, smoothing out the blunt endings, enhancing the line in the recitatives and embellishing the repeat sections of the arias in a way as elaborate and exhilarating as it was unexpected. The impact of the whole was everything my senior colleague said it would be – moving and intensely powerful, capped by Dr Steinitz’s insistence that the audience showed their appreciation by simply standing as the performers left, applause forbidden.
I was never a conventional believer but the story of Jesus’ arrest, ‘trial’ and death works on many levels and a musical performance on this plane is a spiritual event. For me this is the greatest music ever written: to sing it is to stand on holy ground.
As soon as the recording was broadcast I taped it on reel to reel tape, then transferred it to cassettes which eventually, as cassettes do, disintegrated. But a while ago I tracked down the performance in permanent form, transferred to three CDs from high quality tapes by another dedicated collector, Don Draper in North Wales. He sells copies of his formidable collection in aid of Help Musicians UK.
Many years later I sang with Godalming Choral Society under Paul Steinitz’s son Nick. When I came to leave the area, the St Matthew was the last piece I sang with them, and it was a privilege to present Nick with a copy of the recording as a way of thanking his family for the years of pleasure I have had from this performance. It is not widely spoken of but is valued above all others by those who know. It is unique and, in a modest way, I have sung in it under two Steinitzes.
Whether or not you know the music, and whether or not you already have a recording of it, I strongly recommend you get hold of this one. It doesn’t cost much and you only have to email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain it.
And if, when you listen to the chorales where the audience joined in, you hear an unsophisticated baritone voice standing out gauchely from the carefully blended sound, don’t be too hard on him. It might be me.