Spending a quiet Holy Week in the Netherlands, I at last found time in my life to attend a live performance of the St Matthew Passion. And even if you were trying to squeeze it into a busy period, this St Matthew presented in Naarden by the Netherlands Bach Society under Vaclac Luks, would have been perfectly do-able: Part 1, an hour long; a 15-minute interval; then Part 2 in about an hour and three quarters. I loved the fleet-of-foot pace, and the way that the end of every bit of music led immediately into the next bit, surely as Bach’s score implies. Whereas the earliest St Matthew Passions I recall hearing, in the Festival Hall on Good Friday in the 1960s, with some of my school friends in the children’s chorus, actually did take all day (with a decent lunch interval).
There were various, distinguished versions of this great piece happening around the Netherlands during the week I was there, but I was assured that this Naarden performance was the most famous one, a tradition in the town’s imposing Grote Kerk since the 1930s, when it was founded as a ‘more authentic’ rival to the regular Amsterdam Concertgebouw performances under Willem Mengelberg (but who knows what ‘authentic’ meant in those days). The town’s inhabitants are nowadays proud of the fact that their local Good Friday performance (there are several repeats during the week) is of such national importance that it is traditionally attended by the Prime Minister and the Government. Can you imagine that happening over here in the UK? (No.)