St Matthew Passion review – Fretwork showcase an Easter rarity | Classical music

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Performances of the Bach passions are not exactly Easter rarities, but the St Matthew Passion that Fretwork brought to the Wigmore Hall on Good Friday was not by Bach at all. This setting of the story from Matthew’s gospel is a third of the length of Bach’s famous version and pre-dates it by half a century: it was composed around 1663 by Johann Sebastiani, who was then the choir master at Königsberg Cathedral. By then, Passion settings had become the preserve of the Lutheran church, and Sebastiani’s seems to have been the first to incorporate chorales and hymns with non-biblical texts into the score, accompanying the solo voices with two violins, a quartet of viola de gamba, and continuo.

The Fretwork performance was careful to emphasise that flexible, pared-down sound, with light voices and just a portative organ for the continuo. Sebastiani’s score alternates passages of recitative for the Evangelist (tenor Hugo Hymas in this performance) and the words of Christ (bass Jimmy Holliday) with the hymns and solo chorales shared with the other singers. Yet everything flows so seamlessly that the formalism seems much less intrusive than it often seems in Bach, while the carefully varied instruments – just two violins accompany Christ’s utterances, while the chorales from the solo soprano (Elisabeth Paul) are underpinned by the four violas – add more subtle variety.

Perhaps there’s more drama and characterisation to be injected into the solo roles than were suggested in this rather restrained performance, which favoured continuity of line and beauty of tone over theatricality. But the originality, subtlety and intimacy of Sebastiani’s setting were all touchingly conveyed.

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