Last night Handel and Haydn Society presented J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Symphony Hall. Three hours of thrilling music drew on the combined forces of vocal soloists, double orchestra, double choir and two organs to narrate the Passion of Christ. This performance hearkened back to Handel and Haydn Society performances of 1871 (Boston première) and 1879 (first complete American première), while looking forward to the society’s upcoming bicentennial, as part of its programmed revisiting of works they premièred in America in the 19th century.
First composed for Good Friday services in Leipzig on April 11, 1727, the St. Matthew Passion achieved its final form in 1736 when Johann Sebastian Bach produced in his own hand a definitive copy of his “Grosse-Passion.” In this magnum opus Bach composed a compendium of musical forms sacred and secular, encapsulating his technique while also laying seeds which remained fallow until future generations of composers (beginning with Mendelssohn) returned to study this work. The St. Matthew Passion is Bach’s summa musica. This passion-oratorio combines Bible verses and Lutheran chorales in a text by Picander (nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici), perhaps with the assistance of Bach himself. This work is also a summa theologica (to borrow St. Thomas Aquinas’s title), using the whole gamut of text and music to narrate a dramatic tale of hope and anguish, but now in the context of Lutheran Pietism. This is an intensely introspective composition of personal piety and, at times, Bach’s own theology.
Vocally, the burden of this work weighs upon the tenor singing the Evangelist. The young English singer Joshua Ellicott amply weathered the heavy demands of this work. He has a pleasant voice and good expression, so it was a pleasure to hear him sing. Unfortunately his enunciation of the German text, with brighter and wider vowels than the other singers, proved a distraction for me. Bass Matthew Brook sang the role of Jesus with an apt profundity and richness of lower register. Gillian Keith, lyric soprano with a clear, bell-like tone, brought great pathos to her numbers and was especially touching in the moments where she deployed a more restrained use of vibrato. Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano, gave a stunning rendition of the aria “Buß und Reu” and was hauntingly gorgeous in the aria, “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott.” Tenor Jeremy Budd sang an affective and moving version of “O Schmerz!” Stephan Loges, baritone, was captivatingly plaintive in the bass aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.”
The orchestra shone throughout. Highlights include Stephen Hammer’s oboe solo in the tenor aria “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen,” Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba in the tenor recitative “Mein Jesus schweigt,” and Aislinn Nosky’s violin solo in “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott.” The combination of oboe da caccia (Hammer), bassoon (Andrew Schwartz), contrabass (Robert Nairn), and pizzicato cello (Guy Fishman) in the alto recitative “Ach Golgatha, unsel’ges Golgatha” was for me a moment of stunning musical beauty. The instrumental ensemble rose to the thorny challenges in the bass recitative, “Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder,” mastering some truly wild music at this moment of great theological mystery.
This passion makes large demands, too, on the chorus. The turbae choruses were startlingly irruptive and forceful on “Barrabam” and angry at “Laß ihn kreuzigen.” The chorales were full and often quite touching. The quiet entrance at “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” came across as imprecise, and the resulting incoherence was at odds with the tender music and text. I would like to have heard greater precision in placing consonants throughout the performance, most manifestly in the chorale “Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht’” (a particularly treacherous German text for a chorus to sing).
I applaud Harry Christophers for programming Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and overseeing a performance of this work which was quite touching. He elicited a wide range of tonal colors and dynamics from the musicians well matched to the music.
My greatest problem with this performance is with the venue. Symphony Hall, with a seating capacity of more than 2,600, is a vast space. St. Matthew Passion is a large-scale yet intimate work; it is the very nature of Lutheran Pietism. It is very difficult to be tender, quiet, introspective, and also project to the back of this large hall. The challenge between composition and space made the work of the musicians that much more difficult. Some of Ellicott’s fortes came across overly strong, no doubt a result of trying to project to the back of the hall. Jeremy Budd’s opening of “O Schmerz” was covered. Bradford Gleim (First High Priest) and Jacob Cooper (Second High Priest) were largely lost singing from the back of the stage, and Gleim’s singing of Peter seemed lost in the hall. These examples point up the difficulty of this work in a large concert space, even one with fine acoustics.
This is not to say that I want to reserve Bach’s music for church services or performance structures dating only from the composer’s lifetime. I do not seek to entomb Bach’s music. Nor do I oppose historically informed performance (“hip”) practices, which have taught us so much about earlier generations of music and made us hear so very many things anew. Rather, I would like to see “hip” performances also account for the space of the performance — neither being neither strangled by it nor ignoring it. This may mean a greater fluidity in performance practices to suit larger spaces, so that the challenges of matching music and venue do not overcome the rewards of the performance.
This concert will be repeated on Sunday afternoon. Classical New England will present a live broadcast of Sunday’s 3 p.m. performance on 99.5 FM as well.