Every year Holy Week brings with it an embarrassment of riches in terms of Bach Passions.  In London alone we have been spoiled for choice, with performances of two of Bach’s greatest works by the UK’s most-admired ensembles including the Dunedin Consort, the Academy of Ancient Music, Polyphony, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

The latter performed the St Matthew Passion at the Southbank Centre on Monday, conductor-less, as has become the mode in recent years.  On this occasion, the two choirs and two orchestras were ‘directed’ with nods and breaths by tenor soloist, Mark Padmore, encouraging careful listening and communication between performers—often across large distances—which, with one or two exceptions, gave an immediacy and wonderful fragility to the performance.

Padmore brought his usual considered intensity and crisp diction to the role of Evangelist, even if it felt a little run-of-the-mill.  Vocally, he never quite took flight, the wonderful apices of Bach’s recitative lines feeling a little strained.

What Padmore lacked, however, the other soloists more than made up for.  Special mention must go to Matthew Brook, who brought his usual gusto to the bass solos, his eyes communicating the despair of Gebt mir mienen Jesum Wieder!, and Hugo Hymas’s lithe tenor, teetering irresistibly between constraint and complete disregard in Geduld, Geduld!, with intelligent and expressive use of vibrato (not always a given with singers performing early music). Matthew Truscott and Michael Gurevich performed the two violin solos memorably, tempering virtuosity with great poise.

The Choir of the OAE, straddled round the back of the orchestra on the enormous Royal Festival Hall stage, felt a little left out at first.  However, towards the end of the first half, things took a turn in some electrifying moments when the concentration of all 46 performers—more intensely focused with no conductor—came together with telepathic ensemble. The interjections of ‘Laßt ihn’ entered with guillotine precision, causing many members of the audience, myself included, to visibly jump.

It’s impossible to sit through a Bach Passion and not be stirred deep down and left aching for more, and so it’s a shame Holy Week is just that—a week.  But with such a glut of sensuous sacred music it would be indulgent for it to go on any longer.  We’re still in Lent, after all.

Bach’s St Matthew Passion, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Monday 26 March 2018