Bach: St Matthew Passion, review: Battle Choral Society & Orchestra, St Mary’s Battle, October 19

Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an Everest among sacred oratorios.

It requires two orchestras, three choirs, six soloists, an exemplary continuo group and an enormous amount of stamina.

That Battle Choral Society produced many effective moments is without doubt but in the long run the work got the better of them.

There were a number of key elements which held things together. Gary Marriott’s Evangelist was clear, gently emotional and committed throughout, his voice carrying with ease within the church. Solo tenor William Searle was equally on top of the score and produced moving and very beautiful musical lines. Michael White made a positive, and very human, impact as Jesus. The continuo work was outstanding throughout, with particular praise for Nigel Howard at the organ. There were times when the continuo alone seemed to carry items where other instrumentalists had given up. Individual instruments made a positive impression with particular praise for the solo oboe and solo cello. The ripieno choir from Battle Abbey School created a fine sound when we could hear them but could have done with double the numbers to carry over the combined forces.

The choir were at their best in the chorales, many of which were well balanced and focussed, but struggled to project some of Bach’s more complex choruses. Pitch was often insecure, particularly among the tenors. The other soloists, in good voice when secure, seemed to be unfamiliar with the whole score and there were many times when solo items fell apart and the conductor could not rescue them. This seemed to be more than a simple lack of rehearsal time.

Many moments to enjoy, then, and the final chorus brought all elements together in an impressive way, but many more that need careful thought when planning the next event.

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