in: Reviews

November 7, 2011

Musica Sacra & Cecilia in St. Matthew Passion

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With Musica Sacra joining The Boston Cecilia’s chorus and orchestra on Sunday, Nov. 6, at Jordan Hall, Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion seemed like an even bigger event than usual. Bach’s packed Biblical setting features double orchestra, double choir and several soloists, and there’s more than enough history and scholarship to this work adding further gravity. Yet these massive forces delivered an understated performance, demonstrating Bach’s spiritual designs while also stressing the work’s human dimensions.

Boston Cecilia’s Music Director Donald Teeters conducted Bach’s “other” intact Passion as a reflective dialog rather than a theatrical exploration. His calm, reverential reading didn’t lack in drama but balanced that drama with finesse. Modest tempos never dragged, allowing for precise articulation of words as well as melodic and rhythmic lines. Teeters’s direction was largely hands-off, with notable pushes during choral passages at the beginning and end of the work’s two parts as well as the devotional aria for bass, “Mache dich, mein Herze.” Instead of relentlessly driving Christ’s trials forward, Teeters relied upon Bach’s contrapuntal textures and transparent orchestration and his own vocalists and instrumentalists.

Tenor William Hite and bass Ronald Williams were consistently strong as The Evangelist and Jesus Christ. They sang scripture as poetry, and when joined by other characters, acted out gripping exchanges rather than filler between arias and choruses. Hite’s golden upper register and moving inflection made miniature soliloquies of Judas betraying Jesus, the cock crowing and Peter weeping after his denial of Jesus. Williams’s resonant bass and excessive vibrato at first almost overpowered the text, but he offered ominous warnings to his betrayers, as well as an eerily pitiable “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The remaining soloists sang their roles and commentaries with passion as well as elegance. Jolle Greenleaf’s bright yet honeyed soprano stood out during “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” while blending seamlessly alongside other voices. Tenor Aaron Sheehan cultivated a pure tone, forceful then soothing, alongside the rich grain of a viola da gamba for “Geduld, Geduld!” Thea Lobo’s rich, attractively plaintive mezzo handled Bach’s many arias for alto; her shimmering entrance alongside two flutes for the recitative “Du lieber Heiland du” was followed by a well articulated “Buss und Reu,” and “Erbarme Dich,” despite some opening shortness of breath, turned into a fine example of discreet gut-wrenching. Baritone Bradford Gleim and Bass Robert Honeysucker contributed concise, telling performances as Peter and Pilate, sustaining both the narrative as well as emotional thread of the work.

Alongside the singers, The Boston Cecilia Period Instrument Orchestra seamlessly dispatched Bach’s array of solo, obbligato, and background instrumentals with the same exemplary proportion of energy and restraint. Woodwind with string textures streamed subtly under “So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen,” while the sonority of two oboes with viola da gamba enhanced the recitative “Mein Jesu schweigt zu falschen Lugen stille.” Throughout the work, bassoons, cellos, and basses provided firm but flexible underpinning, and the distinctly tangy sound of the strings reinforced the text’s more unnerving moments (yet some strangely mistuned violins threatened to derail Lobo in “Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen”). Similarly, the reeds displayed a uniquely gauzy surface that supported (rather than competed with) the vocal and choral parts.

The choruses of Music Sacra and The Boston Cecilia constructed a firm vocal tapestry that never overwhelmed the music or the text. Rather than resorting to sheer volume, their rich blend and tasteful balances proved far more impressive. Bach’s harmonically rich chorales were sung with a warm, ethereal sheen, with colorful winds making “O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross” into an event of its own. While at some points their articulation could have been more incisive, and some limp entrances on “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin!” undermined momentum, overall these twin choruses maintained a tight, reflective atmosphere that brought Bach’s masterpiece down to human scale.

Not that they also didn’t wail to the heavens! The pleading choral fugue that opens St. Matthew showcased the choruses’ translucent sound as well as their ability to stay powerful and light on their feet, while exclamations for Jesus’ execution proved deliciously spine tingling. This whole performance illustrated that a little restraint goes a long way; in fact, it makes moments of abandon seem all the more real.

Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.

Don Teeters accepts applause after "St. Matthew Passion" (George Imirzian photo)

7 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, you cannot be understated and dramatic if you employ such a large chorus for such a complex work.  It could not, of course, have been performed by the Cecilia, which IS a large chorus, but the St. Matthew would have been better served by fewer voices.  Given the hordes, however, it was an affecting and memorable performance.

    Comment by Jerry Cohn — November 8, 2011 at 9:24 am

  2. That the St. Matthew would have been better served by fewer voices is purely a matter of opinion. Every chorus with sufficient chops should sing this great masterwork – and all the the other big Bach pieces. Bach will survive! The slimmed-down chamber versions that you seem to prefer are most certainly out there; they have their merits, too. I’m glad that you found the performance affecting and memorable. 

    Comment by Michael Beattie — November 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

  3. You are, of course right in every respect save one. You indicate that, in your opinion, the St Matthew would not have been better, but equally well served by smaller forces, and further, indicate a slightly defensive tone regarding the comparison. The wealth of incontrovertible evidence of which I am sure you must be aware, suggests that the forces which Bach used were very much smaller than even many of the “slimmed-down chamber versions” to which you refer. This means that this performance with large choral forces, may have been the norm in days gone by, but is, in fact, what might be described as a “fattened up” version of the original.

    Comment by P Johnson — November 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  4. Let me clarify: by ‘slimmed-down chamber versions’ I meant one on a part. Presumably, Bach’s forces were not smaller than that. The lecture on performance practice I did not need. As you say, the evidence is ‘incontrovertible’ – so much so, that I keep hoping that these types of conversations are over.  As for my tone, it was a good deal more than slightly defensive – my first exposure to Bach was listening to the B Minor Bass conducted by Klemperer and performances of the WTC on piano. Years of study, reading and working with period instruments – as invigorating and enlightening as they have been – have not diminished the value of these performances or my ability to be moved by them. Fortunately, Bach transcends discussions about how many people should be on stage. 

    Comment by Michael Beattie — November 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm

  5. I enjoyed your spirited response! I certainly agree in many respects, although I don’t see any lectures on Auffurungs Praxis, nor did I intend to deliver one. Having also taken part in many performances using all sorts of old and modern instruments and singers in various quantities and configurations, I can only say that I have a personal preference for period performance, not that it is better or worse. That was, I hope, the clear implication.  I tried to make the slightly frivolous point, that Bach originally wrote for “slimmed-down” ensembles and that versions such as this one are, despite their great merits, a product of the Romantics and not the Baroque (sorry for the lecture!) 
    I am surprised that you would assume that these sort of discussions would no longer be happening. There are some centers in the US where people are aware, and amongst people well-educated in music perhaps, but not, certainly in my experience generally.  Many regular concertgoers have no comprehension there is even a difference between instruments or styles of playing. For example, a friend of mine played a harpsichord concerto where a lady was heard to say afterwards “Well it was good, but the piano was a bit soft!” I rest my case!
    In my modest opinion, slimmed-down Bach one on a part is over- (or under!) achieving in any case, as the financial  records of the time show that it was customary to retain both ripienists and soloists in the majority of churches in Germany in the mid 18thC and they would undoubtedly have been used.  TSt Matthew Passion  one-on-a-part is not something I would be rushing to hear – but not 100 on a part either.

    Comment by P. Johnson — November 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  6. And I enjoyed yours! I have a much clearer sense of the point you were making and it seems we agree almost completely. I can still remember the first time I played a Schubert song on fortepiano; it was a life-changing experience and I never played Schubert quite the same way on the modern piano again. There seems to be a growing healthy cross-pollination of styles cropping up in the new generation of players. A number of very excellent players in A Far Cry, for instance, have taken their training as baroque players on period instruments very seriously, while maintaining their place at the ‘modern’ table. As for preferences, the hair still stands up on the back of my neck every time I hear a stage full of string players (period or modern) dig into the first chord of the St. Matthew. Schönes Wochenende!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — November 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm

  7. Sie auch! It’s probably time for us both to get a life now!

    Comment by P. Johnson — November 11, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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