Bach's St Matthew Passion is a monument of its time and beyond, a testament of faith, rendered with a unique mix of the dramatic and expressive; little wonder that English conductor Stephen Layton describes it as one of the greatest cornerstones of Western art.

Presiding over a smaller Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra divided into two baroque bands, he effortlessly captured this work's massive span as a master architect might oversee a major construction project.

The circling, chromatic lines of the opening chorus drew us into the very heart of what was to come. And balancing the complex interplay of voices, instruments and colours, Layton confirmed that this might well be the opera that Bach never wrote.

Throughout, the University of Auckland Chamber Choir revealed its rigorous training under Karen Grylls; from short visceral shouts to a terrifying storm chorus that made you wish that Bach had sneaked a trumpet or three into proceedings. The young singers also excelled in the many exquisitely modulated chorales that offer commentary and reflection throughout the score.

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If Bach's St Matthew Passion were his opera manque, then Gwilym Bowen's Evangelist achieved divo status. He delivered narrative as living drama, never missing a detail or inflection. Alongside him, Laurence Williams' Christus did not quite achieve the tonal radiance required.

Among other soloists, soprano Sarah Macliver was reliably idiomatic, with a cut that carried her voice easily into the hall. Not so with mezzo Helen Charlston, whose finely nuanced singing sometimes needed more projection. Tenor Hiroshi Amako was a total joy, flamboyantly taking on Bach's considerable challenges, including a magnificent duet with the unerring viola da gamba of Laura Vaughan.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart