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Dunedin Consorts Imperfectly But Impressively

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As a preface to this review, please consider:

1) Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is always a marathon. Make it one voice per part so there is never anywhere to hide in the chorus, then dole out all the solos to those same choristers — as did Dunedin Consort per its customary style in Jordan Hall Monday night as part of the Boston Early Music Festival — and you have a triathlon in which mere completion without utter collapse must count as a triumph.

2) In my personal universe, the Matthäus-Passion reigns as the single greatest human creation, and this I aver as one who grew up intimately familiar with non-European canons of greatness. Since the haunting strains of “Erbarme dich” reached out from a staticky public-library VHS of Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice to clutch my teenage-runaway-dropout soul, this master of masterpieces has always played a profound role in my life. So, talk about unreasonable standards… .

3) After less than a full season of immersion into Boston’s musical trove, the likes of the Handel and Haydn Society, Blue Heron, and BEMF’s various presentations and productions have already spoiled my appetite for anything less than immaculate. BEMF’s own season finale this spring, a spare, un-staged chamber rendition of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, still holds my vote for the most spellbinding and utterly transcendent performance on the opera-oratorio continuum in the area this year (Boston Lyric Opera’s Rape of Lucretia takes a close second). So, again, demanding standards.

All of which is to say, Dunedin Consort achieved an imperfect but impressive feat, in which I found more historical interest than musical rapture. 

Kristian Bezuidenhout (Marco Borggreve photo)

Celebrity fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout led from the harpsichord Dunedin’s two 11-piece orchestras, organ, and two vocal quartets, plus an additional quartet of Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir sopranos for the ripieno parts in the first and last movements of Part One.

In the liner notes to its 2008 CD of the Matthäus-Passion (which shares with this outing only five instrumentalists and a single singer), Dunedin’s longtime music director John Butt expounded on the historical and musical merits of assigning one singer to each part, with no additional soloists. Indeed, debates over “authenticity” aside, this method highlights the dialogue, not only between biblical characters in the recitatives, but also between the two choruses and orchestras.

At its best, such an approach can bare a visceral nakedness of the human voice and imbue a live theatricality well worth experiencing at least once. As this evening progressed, however, audible fatigue settled in. By the time we reached the Heartbreak Hill of “Ach, Golgatha,” I genuinely worried for the singers’ wellbeing and feared their stumbling descent to the finish line. To great relief, they rallied just in time for a resounding final sprint from mid-way through “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” to the end.

Outstanding among all eight champions of heroic endurance: Matthew Brook brought the world-weary ember warmth and occasional gravelly gravity of a Verdian father role to Jesus’s utterances and bass solos including “Komm, süßes Kreuz” and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” Tenor Hugo Hymas rang a lyrical, honey-toned Evangelist throughout — even in “O Schmerz,” where one might prefer a bit more fire and brimstone — barely suffering any wilt to his spring-meadow freshness. Jess Dandy’s plum-luscious “Erbarme dich” contained a cosmic vastness where distant stars pulse red and fade, presenting an Exhibit A for the irreplaceable value of good altos who own their womanly curves in an early-music world prone to favor if not fetishize countertenors.

Uneven articulation often plagued the choruses, with soft consonants especially susceptible to melting away in the chorales, and broad and flat vowels dilating further as the night wore on. Perhaps a nod to the Saxon dialect of Leipzig?

Matthew Brook (file photo)

Both choruses and orchestras shuffled through some shaggy attacks and cut-offs. Bezuidenhout maintained a brisk pace, but the faster fugues in particular require stronger tentpoling structure to prevent wrinkles and sags. Crisp consonants could have helped tighten the strings, too. I heartily support conductorless ensemble work and generally favor Bezuidenhout’s style of soft-touch guidance above hyper-emotive podium choreography or metronomic marking of every beat, but I wonder if the sheer complexity of the Matthäus-Passion requires a firmer hand.

As perhaps to be expected, orchestra volume often overshadowed the singers — not overwhelmingly, but enough to draw attention and prompt one’s gratitude time and again for the diamantine precision and brilliance, as well as the seemingly infinite sensitivity and dynamism of the H+H orchestra, which will also be presenting a Matthäus-Passion in its 2019-20 season.

Our guests played an honorable game, and I was glad to have experienced what may (or may not!) have been a more historically accurate representation of the Matthäus-Passion in Bach’s time. But, O, how I look forward to cheering the home team next April.

CJ Ru, Yale Ph.D. candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. 

 

6 Comments »

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6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Having sung the St Matt more times than I can recall, I have to say that this was the cleanest, clearest, and most moving rendition I’ve heard. I never hoped to hear a better Evangelist than Mark Padmore (with the Berlin Phil), but Hymas excelled even him. And the ensemble work was dazzling and wholly satisfying. Sorry to disagree with the reviewer, but this was a winner.

    Comment by jaylyn — June 14, 2019 at 7:52 am

  2. Nice to have CJ Ru on hand with such well-written assessments.

    His/her view is perhaps a bit harsh, but a good corrective to the buzz I’ve been hearing at the festival. The singers contributions as soloists were generally far superior to their work as a chorus where, excepting the lovely chorales, they were poorly balanced and in need of stronger direction.

    And I’ll disagree with the reviewer on one point: “plum-luscious” is not the sound required by “Erbarme dich”. Thank God what followed erased it from memory quickly.

    Comment by Raymond — June 14, 2019 at 1:57 pm

  3. A niggling and ungenerous review, I think. Never have I been so moved or so dazzled by a live performance of the St. Matthew. Matthew Brook (BMInt’s photo caption reads “Brock” but the program book lists him as Brook) was an expressive and resonant Jesus, and Hugo Hymas was an exquisite Evangelist. The woman who sang “Erbarme dich” (I don’t know which of the singers she was) was riveting in everything she sang.

    I would not have wanted “a firmer hand” than Bezeuidenhout’s (I thought he was terrific), and was most grateful not to be bombarded by a chorus of 150 and an orchestra of 100. I’m now absolutely convinced that Joshua Rifkin’s argument for these small forces reveals textures and clarities that are emotionally moving revelations, and I wouldn’t want to give them up. I think the informed and sophisticated audience’s rapturous response to the performance speaks volumes.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 14, 2019 at 5:08 pm

  4. Sorry for the typo in Bezuidenhout’s name.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 14, 2019 at 5:11 pm

  5. It is perhaps unavoidable that such performances will always be measured against the symphonic forces used by H+H and most ensembles, “historical” or not, for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion–and all his vocal music, for that matter. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Mr. Ru’s review of the April performance includes reference to any of the elements lost in a choral-orchestral performance that falls more in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival and the nineteenth-century performances of Handel’s oratorios than it does Bach’s own aesthetic universe.

    If the Dunedin Consort’s BEMF debut tells us anything about one-on-a-part performance of Bach’s music, it is that all of Joshua Rifkin’s scholarly arguments pale in comparison with the aesthetic result of such a performance. There is simply no way around it: having soloists in each choir is integral to the aural conception of the piece. I have heard the St. Matthew Passion three times in concert, all with different size choruses–but always with set-aside soloists and a large number of violins. I have also studied, and been convinced by, Rifkin’s arguments. I felt like I heard the St. Matthew Passion for the first time on Monday night.

    There were plenty of problems, of course. There was just enough messiness to remind one that it was a live performance of one of the most challenging and lengthy pieces in the standard repertoire. The ripieno choir in the opening chorus and the closing chorus of the first part was too large; why not use Jordan Hall’s unique architecture and place two sopranos in opposite balconies, like Bach did in 1742?

    Most problematic of all, however, was Bezuidenhout’s need to lead from the harpsichord. Bach’s 1736 version, which (probably) utilized the opposite galleries of the Thomaskirche and the full-sized church organs in each, can never be replicated in the modern concert hall. In his 1742 reprise, after the organ in the second gallery had been removed, Bach wrote out a harpsichord part for the second choir. So, there is some precedent for the consistent and deliberate use of a harpsichord in the second choir. But Bezuidenhout carelessly and inconsistently weaved in and out of the performance. It was distracting and at some points nonsensical; rather than add to the tremendous performance put on by the Dunedin Consort, it drew attention away from them to the musical element in which Bezuidenhout clearly feels most comfortable. One might also quibble with his interpretation of the fermatas in Aus liebe and the soft-dynamic assigned to the second choir in O Schmerz. But far more offensive than any of these minor decisions was his need to place himself at the center of the performance, to the detriment of the Dunedin Consort’s fine ensemble.

    I might add that, while the Dunedin Consort’s solo singers are perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the performance, the correct (i.e., Bach’s) number of violins makes perhaps an even larger difference. Not only does that ameliorate the balance issues between instruments and voices (which would have been further ameliorated by placing the singers in front of the ensemble, common practice even for symphony orchestras until the twentieth century), but the winds take their appropriate place as the heroes of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach so carefully deployed his flutes (transverse and recorder) and oboes (standard and da caccia), but the symphonic approach–in which winds are kept one-on-a-part, but violins are mercilessly expanded–completely obliterates Bach’s carefully constructed textures. That H+H expands singers and violins, but not the winds, is all the proof one needs to realize that this is a mere importation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion into the nineteenth-century symphonic experience (but with historical instruments), rather than an honest attempt at an historical performance–however fictitious such a performance might inevitably be.

    Thank you, Dunedin Consort, for sharing with me and Boston audiences the power of the St. Matthew Passion with a much closer approximation to Bach’s forces than we are used to hearing. I hope that this is an inspiration to American early musicians, who are all too often convinced that such undertakings are somewhere between impossible and unsatisfactory.

    Comment by Brett Kostrzewski — June 14, 2019 at 6:48 pm

  6. Thank you all for the vigorous discussion. Always good to see that great music can incite such strong passions.

    If I may clarify — since people seem to be jumping to the conclusion that I am calling for ye olde gargantuan Mahler-8 forces — the best Matthews I’ve had the privilege to hear have been along the lines of 2-4 voices per part with mostly stand-alone soloists, which seems to be fairly standard across many early music ensembles. My ideal, with the right singers, might be 2 per part with stand-alone Jesus and Evangelist. I love spare immediacy and transparency, but it’s just a lot to ask each singer to be so completely exposed for the entire duration, with such little rest and recovery time (and most intermissions lasting less than a full Good Friday sermon, if we really want to talk about historical reenactment). Certainly doable, as Dunedin has proved, but it takes its toll. I don’t presume to know what forces H+H will deploy next year, but they’ve impressed me on both larger and chamber scales, so I look forward to whatever they choose.

    I will also grant that perhaps I was sitting in an acoustically unforgiving spot, and indeed had wondered if I should move up to the nosebleeds for better blending and balance, where every little peccadillo wouldn’t be as prominent. A German-speaker next to me, too, complained of not being able to follow the text, among other criticisms harsher than mine.

    May I inquire of those who deem Dunedin superior, what other ensembles did this surpass? Which were your favorites until now? (And to those who were not quite as blown away, I would love to know what performances rank as your top Matthews, too.) Isn’t it a testament to the power of Bach’s music that it cannot fail to move, no matter what form it takes or one’s personal predilections?

    Comment by CJRu — June 15, 2019 at 9:48 am

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