If there are no atheists in foxholes, there aren't many at a Bach St Matthew Passion concert either, at least while the music is playing. This oratorio performance had such conviction it transcended its Lutheran setting and spoke to the universal experience of loss and betrayal.
The choir began with a lilting passage underpinned with profound pedal tones. The first rising phrase of the choir hinted at the power to come. Hailing from London, the Bach choir featured both beautiful tone and diction. All the contrapuntal sections were clear, the words convincing. The Chamber Boys of the Hong Kong Children's Choir also held their own, with their chorale melodies soaring.
The audience was rapt during dramatic spots, most notably when Jesus called out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Stephan Ruegamer was a superb Evangelist, singing his narration with a high note that rang through the hall. The rest of the singers, with their intense expressions, sang as if they meant every word. One of many electric moments came during Ruegamer's fadeout as Christ died on the cross.
The role of Jesus was sung by the baritone Christopher Maltman, who captured both the loving and tortured side of Jesus wonderfully. Maarten Koningsberger added a welcome note of energy and drama to the role of Judas.
Alto aria Erbarme Dich ("have mercy") was the highlight of the night for me. Jennifer Johnston, alto, sang eloquently but Jing Wang, concertmaster, played the violin solo accompaniment with such fiery brilliance he almost outsang her.
The concert was conducted by HK Phil's music director Jaap van Zweden.