David Hamilton, where you have you been all my life? Now this is a silly question, because I've heard David Hamilton sing several times, including, if I'm not mistaken, as the Evangelist in the St John Passion not so very long ago. So he shouldn't have been a surprise to me today - but he was. Dio, che voce! I would quite happily have spent the three hours listening only to him. Gorgeous singing, perfect diction, dramatic expression - in short, everything you could ever want in an Evangelist. He was - not a word I've ever lavished upon a tenor before - glorious.
The only woman among the soloists, Pepe Becker, was certainly in better voice than for last year's Judas Maccabaeus. In fact, she was sounding excellent. But style-wise, she just didn't quite fit. Her Bach singing is very much of the high, pure, vibrato-free and unoperatic variety. It's singing which appeals to me a lot - but it needs an orchestra that suits it, and the Southern Sinfonia wasn't it. Don't misunderstand me, the orchestra too was in magnificent form: but it and Pepe Becker were performing two rather different St Matthew Passions. Grant Dickson made a powerful Jesus, managing to maintain a degree of lyricism while nevertheless wringing out every inch of anguish and pain. David Griffiths was fine, but made no great impression on me; 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein' was heartbreaking, naturally, but then it always is: I was almost in tears, but it's the orchestra, rather than anyone's singing, that has that effect on me in that aria. Shaun Dixon, semi-protégé of Pavarotti, started off by singing what seemed to be the St Matthew Passion arr. Puccini, but by the time his second aria arrived he'd remembered where he was, and he was much better - but it's still pretty clear that Italian opera, rather than German oratorio, is where he's happiest. Finally, the alto soloist, David Hansen. Having overcome as far as possible my prejudices about countertenors singing Bach, I was really rather interested - excited even - to hear this. Alas, my hopes for him were not fulfilled. It seems to me that one of the big obstacles countertenors face is the perception that their voice is essentially 'false'. They can only overcome this by sounding as natural and comfortable as possible in what they sing: and this man didn't. There were hints of a genuinely beautiful voice, but mostly it sounded like a passable falsetto and nothing more, marred by a barely-there lower register and a weird, whirring tremolo which sounded a little like machine-gun fire. He's surely capable of much better: by the looks of his programme bio, he's quite the rising star.
Of course, the St Matthew Passion has a lot more to it than its soloists. The City of Dunedin Choir is in its element in this sort of music, and they were awe-inspiring this afternoon. Special mention also to a couple of soloists, Jon Waters and Nick Madden, who were the two high priests. The Southern Sinfonia, as I mentioned, was wonderful. Particularly the concertmaster Sydney Manowitz, an extraordinary violinist, whose playing in 'Erbarme dich' well and truly stole the limelight. And I'm sure Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue of Midnight, who many months ago made a plea for cheerier-looking orchestra players, would have delighted in chamber organist Tom McGrath's obvious and infectious enthusiasm.
An excellent St Matthew Passion. I'm glad I changed my mind and went, instead of staying home for the Met broadcast of Figaro, which was my original plan. The stunning Mr Hamilton's silken tones are still in my mind; and it's Bach, after all: you can't help but leave feeling happy that such music exists.