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.