in: Reviews

March 19, 2012

Small-Ensemble St. Matthew Passion

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Both the Lenten season as well as the occasion of Johann Sebastian Bach’s upcoming 327th birthday this Wednesday provided ample impetus (as if any were really needed) to revisit the Baroque master’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) on Saturday afternoon. The Freisinger Chamber Orchestra’s performance on Saturday marks the complete traversal of three major Bach works by the ensemble, starting with the St. John Passion in March 2010, and the B Minor Mass in March 2011. Conductor Peter Freisinger’s approach to the Matthew Passion utilized a startlingly small ensemble — two string quintets, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, one bassoon and organ with a double chorus of eight singers, swelling to a maximum of 12 with the addition of a soprano ripieno in the first and last choruses. The intention, of course, is clear: smaller ensembles, perhaps, are able to perform music with more agility, to drive tempi faster than their massive counterparts.

It’s this approach that was emphasized on Saturday afternoon’s performance. For the most part, the form fit function: it was wise to forgo Old South Church’s massive, carpeted sanctuary for the more nuanced acoustics of the church’s Gordon Chapel, which fit the sound of the smaller ensemble well, nicely amplifying the more supple sound of the ensemble without obfuscating the details of Bach’s intricate counterpoint. FCO’s performance traversed the significant drama of the oratorio with a vitality that can only be achieved by the smaller ensemble. The chorus, when the crowd wants to crucify Christ, virtually seethed, illustrating the rich text painting of the score, while chorale movements progressed at a conversational tone — a surprising read of the sections that emphasized the more poetic sentiments of the chorale texts. While ensemble work was strong, frequently the faster, more graceful tempi seemed less productive in solo movements. Certainly, faster tempi felt more natural for many of Bach’s arias, yet too often, they fell into technical disarray as labyrinthine melismae became obscured, noticeably delaying the beginnings of phrases for the soloists as both orchestra and conductor trudged dutifully on.

None of this is to discredit the substantial talents of the individual singers. Of particular note were Sean Lair, who provided a strong performance as Evangelist. Lair’s tenor is somehow simultaneously marmoreal and deeply expressive — a considerable talent that happily graced the altar of Gordon Chapel. Bass Jeremy Collier was also of particular note, negotiating both “Komm süsses Kreuz” and “Mache dich, mein Herze,” rein with a clear, rich tone, but also a stern patience that gave much good service to the drama of both arias. Ensemble work among the choir members was also consistently strong throughout, providing strong, delineated choral lines that vividly demonstrated the glorious complexity of Bach’s counterpoint. In a supporting role, as it occurs in various arias, the ensemble also managed a keenly balance timbre in support of the soloist.

Lasting almost three hours, Saturday’s concert, as perhaps with any performance of the Matthew Passion, was not for the faint of heart. Despite the small audience that Gordon Chapel affords, after the lengthy and emotionally trying odyssey of Bach’s work, the ensemble received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience. FCO continues its concert series next year with works by Haydn and a world premiere.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.

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