Conductor Steven Karidoyanes opened Saturday evening’s concert with a warning “it’s going to be a long night.” To be sure, visiting one of the two Bach passions in lesser performances does often end up being simply that—a Lenten pilgrimage more of flagellation than reward. Saturday’s traversal of the Matthaus Passion by the Masterworks Chorale at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater is a continuation of a long tradition of Boston. After its rediscovery, in 1829 by Felix Mendelssohn, the Handel and Haydn Society performed the excerpted Boston premiere in 1871, eight years later giving the American premiere of the work in its entirety.
By now the St Matthew has become a staple of the choral repertoire, but it was surprising to see that the previous offering by the Masterworks Chorale took place nearly 20 years ago. This year’s was of very high ambition. Masterworks not only included double orchestra and choir with its six soloists but added children’s choir for the first half. Adding to this complexity was the scheduled mezzo Krista River’s being indisposed and replaced at 24 hours’ notice by countertenor Reginald Mobley. Given such turmoil, it seemed at once droll and forgivable that the program notes apologized for 440Hz tuning and one (not two) keyboard accompaniment instruments and for the omission of bassoon parts.
Overall, slightly slower than expected tempi lent the gathered forces a measured stateliness, allowing not only for a more thorough exposition of the dramatic setting but also abetting the choir’s precision. This is not only with regard to standard choral technique (cutoffs and dynamic shifts were faithful) but also with regard to the vision of the work. Whereas hymn settings remained clean and emotive, the chorus really came to life in the more narrative moments. Indeed, turba choruses often came off aptly, as riotous and disruptive, while more-extended, complex chorale work was consistently detailed and, especially in the slower tempi, articulated clearly. The children’s chorus disported itself with clarity and attention, and Karidoyanes maintained considerate balances throughout.
The soloists were outstanding. Soprano Deborah Selig has a jeweled tone that fared especially well in the treacherous melismatic arias; tenor Charles Blandy was memorable in his Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen, compelling the aria and chorus with an almost heroic lyric tone. Dana Whitesides’s Mache dich, mein Herze, rein succeeded profoundly, playing into his warm and open bass. Finally, despite short notice, Reginald Mobley graced the stage with several memorable arias, deploying a countertenor that is hauntingly ethereal, silvery in tone and touched with real intuition of the musical moment. His Buẞ und Reu and Erbarme Dich arias were incredibly moving. Additional solo parts were performed by chorus members.
Given the narrative nature of the work, focus is drawn to the Evangelist and Christ. As Jesus, Paul Max Tipton was sometimes weaker in the upper reaches but presented a lovely and rich lower range with a full sound that remained supple when delightfully rested on a cloud of strings.
As Evangelist, tenor Matthew Anderson has a clear, expressive tone that remains remarkable in his upper register while maintaining a resonant middle range. The expression he wrenched out of the spare recit telling of Peter weeping after the cock’s crow, still sends chills. Lines were delicately shaped and molded in service of the story, creating a sensible cohesion to the narrative.
Our Lenten pilgrimage brought great rewards and no punishments: the combined talents of choir, orchestra and soloists memorably told of Bach’s great Passion, bringing the drama vividly to life. It is rare to see such an enthusiastic reception of an exhausting performance: audience members sprang to their feet in ovation before the last note could vanish into silence.