Bach meant one thing to me as a young violinist. He was the genius behind the core of the violin canon—that well-spring of inspiration and technical challenge, that fountain of musical complexity, subtlety and beauty—the Three Sonatas and Three Partitas for Solo Violin. Other works loomed large, the Brandenburg Concerti and the Well Tempered Clavier for instance, but none challenged the central position of these six unaccompanied works for me. They served as a bible from which I could extract passages of wisdom and insight. A teacher of mine demanded that I make time to play “a little bit of Bach everyday” no matter what other music I was studying.
However, at Brandeis under the tutelage of Eric Chafe, when I explored Bach with fresh ears, attentive to who he was in his time, I was surprised to find that the works so central to my musical development were neither at the heart of his achievement nor central to his goals. His instrumental works are glorious, groundbreaking, and fundamental, but as Bach made clear in his request for dismissal from Mühlhausen in 1708, he sought above all else to produce “a well-regulated church music” (The New Bach Reader), a canon of Lutheran church music unmatched in quality and theological expressiveness. His massive yearly cycles of church cantatas represent the epicenter of this work. In them Bach built extraordinarily detailed and dramatic structures that both project the core beliefs of Lutheran theology with elegance and specificity and strike the believer with such personal, emotional forcefulness, as to draw them in to the full experience of Christian life and belief. To this end, no work reaches greater heights and displays more forcefully the subtlety of Bach’s musical imagination than the one Emmanuel Music presented on Friday, March 31st and Sunday, April 2nd at Emmanuel Church in Boston: J. S. Bach’s Passio Domini nostri J.C. secundum Evangelistam Matthæum (1724) BWV 244, the St. Matthew Passion.
Just as Bach drew from standard biblical texts, Lutheran chorales, and madrigal poetry by one of Leipzig’s foremost Lutheran poets, Picander, to craft his colossus, so did Emmanuel Music draw from many of the great local institutions to assemble the forces required for Bach’s “great passion”. This was Emmanuel’s third performance of the St. Matthew Passion, its first under founder Craig Smith in 1996 and its most recent under John Harbison in 2009, but it was the first in Artistic Director Ryan Turner’s career. Turner led the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music and the Boston Children’s Chorus (directed by Emily Howe) as well as soloists Charles Blandy as the Evangelist and Paul Max Tipton as Jesus. Forgoing the gorgeous Spring weather on Sunday afternoon, hundreds chose instead to spend three hours in Emmanuel Church listening to one of Bach’s greatest masterpieces. Dozens of patrons waiting at will call and hopeful ticket buyers spilled out onto Boylston Street prior to the performance.
Charles Blandy shouldered the taxing role of the Evangelist with aplomb, delivering reams of text as naturally as if were discussing the Bruins’ post-season prospects. His dexterity and diction masked the tremendous vocal control required to navigate Bach’s often craggy tenor recitatives and deliver them with flawless intonation and velvet tone. For example, when Jesus declares to his disciples “Truly I say to you: one among you will betray me”, the Evangelist sets up the following chorus (“Lord, is it I?”), describing their agitation (“And they were very troubled and began, each among them, to say to him:”) with appropriately agitated leaps over an crunchy diminished sonority on a basso E. This is one of dozens of tricky passages that Blandy dispatched with ease and beauty.
However, when the text demanded that the he slip from his role as narrator into something resembling another tormented member of the congregation, when he needed to display emotion to draw us into the anguish of the Passion narrative, Blandy chose his expressions carefully and delivered them with razor sharp precision. He introduced the quietude and stillness of Gethsemane (No. 18), slowing the tempo and hushing his voice to a whisper. He punctuated Christ’s death on the cross (No. 61e). He brought a dark gravity to Pilate’s command to guard the tomb (No. 66c). And he endowed Jesus’s silence in the face of judgement with meaning and gravity (No. 33). And while there is no good place to mark a page turn in an audience libretto, the provided text at this performance seemed to have at least three particularly bad ones. Loud turns broke the quiet intensity of the last three aforementioned moments delivered by the Evangelist. In the face of false condemnation Jesus may have been silent, but Sunday afternoon’s ticket holders were not.
Instead of highlighting Christ’s human torment with high drama, Paul Max Tipton lent his performance of Jesus a kind of heavy, stentorian bass tone that projected wisdom and weariness in equal measure. One could hear the weight of the cross on his shoulders. Nevertheless, as with Blandy, when Tipton needed to bring more outward expression to his words, he chose his interpretation wisely. After a follower’s violent outburst, Jesus assuaged him with a softer, empathetic tone that contrasted sharply with the outrage he expressed in the indictment that follows. But in his final line of No. 28, Tipton’s Jesus cast his eyes upward and his voice projected a profound sense of destiny with the words “Aber das ist alles geschelen, daß erfüllet würden die Schriften der Propheten” (However all of this has happened in order to fulfill the writings of the prophets). Perhaps Tipton’s most stunning moment of drama came in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus shares his reluctance to sacrifice himself for humankind (No. 21). Tipton delivered this heart wrenching text in a whisper. The human Christ surprised himself with his own cowardly words.
Joining the headliners, a handful of excellent soloists from Emmanuel Music’s own ranks stepped forward to deliver the string of arias, mostly settings of Picander’s poetic texts, that humanize the Passion story. Margaret Lias (alto, also the First Witness) brought a balanced gravity to Buß und Reu (No. 6). Kendra Colton (soprano) finished her performance of Blute nur, du liebes Herz (No. 8), powerful and clear over paired flutes, with an impassioned final appoggiatura. Susan Consoli (soprano) embodied the innocent joy of the naive, earthly believer (often marked in Bach, as here, with oboes in thirds) in Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (No. 13), beautifully closing off the B section (…und Himmel sein.) with no vibrato. Frank Kelley (tenor) projected tormented aggression in Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (No. 20), but Peggy Pearson’s stunning oboe solo stole the show.
In fact there were three additional arias in which instrumental solos danced with the vocal lines. Leading Orchestra II, violinist Danielle Maddon joined David Kravitz (bass) for a plucky and energetic performance of Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder (No. 42). (Kravitz also brought power and drama to Pilate in Part II.) Two of the best performances of the afternoon combined in Krista River’s (alto) Erbarme dich, mein Gott (39), which featured a gorgeous violin solo by Orchestra I leader Heidi Braun-Hill. David Tinervia (bass), also a convincing Judas, brought intense crescendos and notable breath control to a performance of Komm, süsses Kreuz, so will ich sagen (No. 57) over an earthy viola de gamba solo by Laura Jeppesen.
In addition to portraying Peter admirably, Mark McSweeney (bass) dispatched Gerne will ich mich bequemen (No. 23) over a bedrock of stark accompaniment and breaks in texture that painted a vivid picture of disciples dozing off in Gethsemane. Jessica Petrus (soprano) and Deborah Rentz-Moore (an alto that returned for Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand, No. 60) drifted long suspensions in So ist mean Jesus nun gefangen (No. 27) weaving in free imitation with impeccable intonation over choral outbursts so taut that I jumped in my seat. Pamela Dellal (alto), sang the halting sarabande lament Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin! (No. 30) with intensity against chorus responses. Jonas Budris (tenor) executed the most virtuosic moments of Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen (35) with beautiful tone and flawless intonation. Outrage and exasperation came through in Emily Marvosh’s (alto) Können Tranen meiner Wangen (No. 52). She was almost breathless in her recitative’s final set up line “Have mercy, stop!”. Dana Whiteside (bass) sang gorgeously with pure tone that befits Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (No. 65). The other excellent soloists included Sarah Yanovitch, Carley DeFranco, Will Prapestis, Donald Wilkinson, and Cassandra Extavour.
Through all of these great performances one rose to the top. Delicately weaving soft lines over an accompaniment of only a flute and oboes, Teresa Wakim brought the audience into another world with her performance of Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (No. 49). Equal parts naive, earthly sadness and eternal, cosmic grandeur, this performance left my neighbors wiping tears from their eyes.
Ryan Turner lead with a light touch leaving his performers plenty of room to attend to the details themselves, which they did with subtlety and grace. He was particularly adept at wrangling the disparate forces in the large chorale fantasias that open and close the Parts, only occasionally losing coordination between ensembles on the floor and in the balcony. The turba choruses burned with intensity, and the chorale Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (No. 62) projected the weight of its existential message. He brought a logical and satisfying shape to the whole of the Passion, no easy task for a conductor approaching the work for the first time—gathering intensity toward Christ’s crucifixion and settling into somber melancholy towards the end.
This wasn’t only Ryan’s Turner’s first Matthew; it was also my own. And I can’t imagine a more trustworthy guide than this ensemble—both drawn and drawing from Boston’s diverse musical ranks—and so steeped in the music of Bach’s cantatas.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.