Bach's St Matthew Passion was a highlight of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's 2018 season; here, the orchestra's annual choral concert was given under the umbrella of its Templar Great Classics series, a stirring Easter journey through the music of Bach and Handel, chosen and conducted by the stylish Sofi Jeannin.

Travelling from the Garden of Gethsemane (Bach's noble "Kommt, ihr Tochter" chorus) to Handel's uber-joyous Hallelujah chorus, it offered an effective balance of narrative and reflection.

The sweep and authority of Jeannin's conception was apparent from the opening chorus, set at a deliberate tempo, with subtle rhythmic inflections and magnificent dynamic moulding. Alas, the exemplary singing of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir did not always project above orchestral forces.

Later on, Jeannin briefly outlined the strengths of the composers: Bach represented beauty, fervour, intelligence and craftsmanship; Handel a sense of drama and theatre, immediacy and humanity.

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Two testing Bach arias, the second with a buoyant, dancing cello obbligato by Michael Dahlenburg, revealed Henry Choo as the ideal tenor to resolve the composer's blend of complexity and lyricism. Choo effortlessly weaved his vocal line above and between Voices NZ's chorale interpolations.

Bach also provided a stunning orchestral interlude with a Sinfonia and Adagio from his Easter Oratorio. The first brought the trumpets and drums out in full force, the second featured a heart-stopping oboe solo from Bede Hanley.

Mezzo Sally-Anne Russell certainly stressed the emotional in Handel's "He was despised", with particularly brave ornamentation. Soprano Anna Leese, with a cut that had her voice ringing through the hall, illuminated the evening's ultimate testament of faith, "I know that my redeemer liveth".

Voices NZ had its moments of glory in the great Crucifixus from Bach's Mass in B minor, and numerous choruses from Handel's Messiah, deftly and decoratively laced with the harpsichord continuo of Nathan Cox.

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