Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
There are any number of arguments about how Bach's Passions should be performed – with a large choir, small choir, even no choir at all. But it is hard to imagine a more authentic experience than the St Matthew Passion delivered by the ensemble for which it was written.
It's sobering to realise that in addition to being a prodigious genius, Bach was essentially the overworked head of a busy school music department. Now, only 16 kantors (choirmasters) later, the St Thomas Boys' Choir of Leipzig has undertaken a brief British tour to mark its 800th anniversary.
The choir comprises approximately 90 boys (Bach complained when he arrived in Leipzig that he only had 16, only four of whom he reckoned to be any good) who maintain an arduous schedule based on limited television, lots of gym, and only two shower rooms between the whole school. Yet such dedication brings an unparalleled intensity and spiritual commitment to the music.
Accompanied by the magnificent Gewandhaus Orchestra, the textures conjured by the current kantor, Georg Christoph Biller, had the freshness and transparency of spring water. The boys proved capable of making a tumultuous noise in the choruses; yet it was in the chorales, the heart and soul of Bach's Lutheran church music, that the harmonic lines interwove with a transcendence that can only be achieved through living, eating and working together.
The soloists (with the honourable exception of soprano Ute Selbig) were predominately graduates of the choir. Tenor Christoph Genz is proof that a Leipzig apprenticeship can lead to a distinguished adult career; while the youngest, Stefan Kahle, sang modestly among the altos before stepping forward to deliver seemingly effortless accounts of Buss und Reu and Erbarme Dich in a voice that tugged directly at the tear ducts. The St Thomas Choir has eight centuries of glorious history; in Kahle it may have produced its next superstar.
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