A staple of the Handel and Haydn Society’s repertory since the 1870s—it gave the nation’s first complete performance on Good Friday of 1879, Part I in the afternoon and Part II in the evening, and had already offered about half of it in 1871 and three-quarters on Palm Sunday of 1876—Bach’s St. Matthew Passion received a superb rendition last night at Symphony Hall. It repeats there tomorrow at 3pm.
Those first revival performances were undoubtedly vastly different from the current ones under the baton of Artistic Director, Harry Christophers, because H+H, whose founding documents were signed on March 24, 1815, was a community organization with a volunteer chorus of considerable size, frequently well over 100, and what we would today call a “pick-up” orchestra, and soloists, many of whom may also have been volunteers. They followed the tradition established by Felix Mendelssohn in his first “modern” presentation on March 11, 1829, in Leipzig, where Bach wrote it and offered it on April 11, 1727 (the same date as H+H’s 1879 offering) and again in 1729 and 1736. Mendelssohn eliminated the arias, used massive forces, and set the precedent of giving the work in the concert hall rather than the church. The H+H performances some 60 years later also likely were done with a more grandiose Romantic interpretation, heavy vibrato in both strings and voices, all in marked contrast to today’s 100%-professional personnel affording unclouded clarity.
The Passion genre originated in the Middle Ages as a theatrical dramatization presented in the Good Friday-Easter period, initially on a simple platform in the square in front of the main, usually west, portal of a church or cathedral, a tradition continued to this day every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany. Subsequently it moved indoors to be performed in front of the altar, which, being already above the level of the spectators, eliminates the need for a platform stage. Over time, music was added, and it ultimately came to be entirely sung, with recitatives and arias, choruses and chorales, like cantata and opera, each of those movement forms having its purpose. The former pair generally tell the story, while the latter pair reflect on the action and events, standing in for the audience and the faithful, personalizing the drama for them and drawing them in emotionally. The texts of the recitatives stayed closer to the Gospel, and the choruses were more poetic, written by librettists, Picander (pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici) in this case. The works of Bach are generally viewed as the pinnacles of the genre, with the St. Matthew considered the more artistically and evenly balanced of the two that remain (St. John is the second). There are fragments of a third, the St. Mark, which Diethard Hellmann realized into a performing version in 1968. King’s Chapel will perform the work Sunday at 5:00. See BMInt article here.
The genre divides the action into two parts, the first beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane and running up to the decision of Crucifixion, and the second, presenting that and the burial, of Jesus. Inevitably, the second is longer, faster paced, more dramatic, and more emotionally engaging than the first, which is quieter and can seem to lag. The score of the St. Matthew Passion calls for two choruses, here of 17 voices each, four per part with an additional soprano, and two orchestras, here of 14 strings, 5 woodwinds, and an organ each, that are occasionally joined together, and was augmented here by two other choruses, in this performance youth choirs from H+H’s Vocal Arts Program in Boston area schools, with 20 and 21 members each, positioned forward of the two H+H choruses on either side of the orchestras.
The vocal soloists represent individuals, Jesus, Peter, Pilate, for example, in the narrative, or are simply identified by register, being anonymous stand-ins for believers and spectators. Some of the former, like Peter, sung by baritone David McFerrin, were members of Chorus I; others among the latter, including tenor Matthew Long making his H+H début, were guest artists. The Evangelist narrates the story, announcing and providing all the links between actions and events; he has most of the solo singing and face time before the audience. Tenor Joshua Ellicott was a brilliant Evangelist; his enunciation and speech rhythm were fluid and natural, making his performance truly extraordinary in a role that requires impressive stamina as well as highly diverse artistic finesse. Bach drew the role of Jesus the innocent victim quite passively, yet in his H+H début, baritone Roderick Williams executed the role with many finely crafted nuances.
In her excellent note, H+H Historically Informed Performance (HIP) Fellow Teresa M. Neff writes that the bass aria “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (Come, sweet cross) is “essentially a duet for viola da gamba and bass,” here Sumner Thompson. There are several such duets, including the number often excerpted and sung in recitals, “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy), for alto, here Anna Stéphany, making her H+H début, and violin, and “Aus liebe” (For love) for soprano, here Joélle Harvey, with flute and two oboes da caccia. In most cases the instrumentalists stood as well as the soloists, allowing their virtuosic performances (concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and flutist Christopher Krueger for these two movements) to match and carry with those of the singers, although obviously this is not an option for gambist Laura Jeppesen. All of the performances of these sublime movements were stunning, holding the audience enraptured and breathless. Likewise impressive throughout the evening were the choruses’ control, dynamics, and expression. It was also clear from this superb achievement how, as Harry Christophers told BMInt’s publisher the night before, he always proceeds from a deep understanding of text. The dramatic reading fittingly set the Society’s major milestone.