Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

St.Matthew Passion rich and dramatic from Wellington’s Bach Choir

By , 26/03/2015

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
JS BACH – ST.MATTHEW PASSION BWV 244

Richard Greager (Evangelist) / Simon Christie (Jesus)
Nicola Holt (soprano) / Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto)
Lachlan Craig (tenor) / David Morriss (bass)

Wellington Young Voices (Christine Argyle, director)
Douglas Mews (continuo)

Bach Choir of Wellington
Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers, leader)

Peter Walls (conductor)

Metropolitean Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
Hill Street, Wellington

Sunday, 29th March 2015

When looking through various articles in search of a thought-provoking quote with which to begin this review, I found a number which set me upon my ear! – or perhaps that should be my eye! – of course I had to choose only one, for fear of being accused of using other people’s words to write most of the review for me! After some soul-searching, my choice was a statement from the 89 year-old Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher György Kurtág:

“Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it — as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering in of the nails.”

The performance of JS Bach’s St.Matthew Passion at which we were present on Sunday afternoon at the Metropolitean Cathedral of the Sacred Heart seemed to me such an act on a communal scale, presenting a work of art that simply invites humanity to believe in itself and partake in its capacity to act as human beings might do when showing love and compassion for one another.

That same belief in an essential humanity informed not only the music we heard but its performance. In terms of intent, commitment and insight it was one that, in Kurtág’s words, “never stopped praying”, mirroring the actual music and presenting it in human terms through singing, playing and conducting. At every point I felt the musicians were fully taken up with the composer’s inspiration and belief, and the music’s intellectual and emotional power.

Probably the reason that what I’ve written so far sounds more like an article of humanist faith than a music review is that the work, one of the mightiest that has come out of Western civilization, made such an overwhelming effect through its performance on this occasion. György Kurtág’s comment regarding the crucifixion having “the hammering in of the nails” could have been applied in metaphorical terms to other Gospel account imagery in a hundred such places throughout the narrative, in this deeply-committed rendering.

Before the performance began, conductor Peter Walls talked about the work and some of its detailing along similar lines – he pointed out some of Bach’s particular placements of instrumentation and how they reflected the content and mood of the words. Though Bach was often criticized for what some people considered over-dramatisation of the text (“Opera in church!” one distinguished lady was heard to declare disapprovingly at the end of one of the Passion performances), he actually broke with a trend that favoured sentimental verse settings of the Gospel stories, by restoring the actual Biblical texts, sung in recitative by a tenor as the Evangelist, and by other soloists as the main characters  in the story, with the choruses representing the crowd.

Walls drew our attention to the special character given to recitatives performed by the singer representing Jesus, – how Bach underlined the idea of the character’s divinity with string-accompaniment, except for the latter’s final outburst – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, signifying a kind of divine abandonment. The conductor also drew our attention to Bach’s frequent use of chorales which in effect represent the congregation. Their melodies would have been familiar to Bach’s congregants, who would probably have joined with the choir in singing them – the most often-recurring chorale (sung five times throughout the work, with different words and slightly varied harmonisations each time) uses a melody actually adapted from a popular song of renaissance times, an organic, if somewhat whimsical connection between great art and everyday life!

The work’s very opening made here a deeply-felt and richly-sounded impression, with both chorus and instrumentalists divided into two groups alternating with descriptions of the scene where Jesus is carrying his cross, over the top of which sounded voices belonging to a children’s choir (Wellington Young Voices) intoning the words of a gentle chorale, “O Lamb of God”. The choirs were secure and full-throated, while in support the instrumentalists enabled an enticing accompanying texture, a sea of buoyancy on which the voices sailed safely and soundly.

As the Evangelist Richard Greager brought to bear on his recitatives all of his dramatic skill at making the words leap from the page of score and take on all the elements of the drama. I was worried after listening to the opening lines that the voice might not be steady enough for the more sustained notes, but as the work proceeded and things warmed up, I found myself increasingly relishing Greager’s vivid and varied story-telling with each phrase of the text. Among the most telling moments was the Evangelist’s recounting of Judas’ appearance with the priests to betray and capture Jesus, a moment which brought forth impassioned, ringing vocalizations!  – another great sequence was Greager’s expressive retelling of the story of Peter’s denial of Christ, bringing out the disciple’s horror and shame when he realized what he had done.

Central to the drama was, of course, the character of Jesus Christ, whose words were sung by bass Simon Christie – at first I found his tone gruff and a touch abrasive around the edges, qualities which he gradually relinquished with each of his subsequent utterances. His voice’s dark quality certainly suited the story’s subject-matter, and he was able to “pull rank” with some authority, such as when he delivered Jesus’s rebuke to the apostles for their objections to Mary Magdalene washing and anointing his feet.  He also paced and inflected Christ’s  “trinket alle daraus” (Drink from this, all of you)  beautifully and sensitively, and, of course, he had the expressive power to do justice to moments like “Mein Vater”, Jesus’s supplication to His Father to spare him the oncoming agony of his prophesied death.

The other singers of course delivered all the non-Biblical recitatives and associated arias which Bach interpolated into the narrative. Written by a poet known as Picander, these meditations comment introspectively on the meaning of the Gospel events, inviting the listener to become emotionally involved with the drama, personalizing key moments in the work and giving it incredible depth of feeling. First of the quartet to appear was the alto, Maaike Christie-Beekman, who brought her richly-wrought but finely-gradated tones to both recitative “Du lieber Heiland du” (My Master and my Lord) and to the aria “Buß und Reu” (Penance and remorse), each beautifully accompanied by the flutes, with solo ‘cello enriching the aria, the instrumental figurations vividly illustrating the “Tropfen meiner Zähren” (teardrops) of the text. Throughout the whole of the work, Christie-Beekman’s voice and way with the text took me to the heart of whatever she sang, such as with the heart-rending “Ach Golgotha, unselges Golgotha!” (Ah! – Golgotha, unholy Golgotha), the oboe-playing heartfelt and stricken, and with the recitative followed by a most touching aria (“Sehet, Jesus hat die hand….ausgespannt”) (See, Jesus has stretched out his hand) with poignant chorus interjections.

Though soprano Nicola Holt was less vocally consistent, occasionally singing a tad sharp under pressure, her line nevertheless had a purity and steadiness in most places, which gave the text an almost instrumental strength, as in her opening “Blute nurd, du liebes Herz” (Bleed now, loving Heart), words chillingly and pitilessly addressed to the mother of Judas the traitor, who nurtured at her breast one who became “a serpent”. Then, immediately following Jesus’ invitation “trinket alle daraus”, came a difficult, cruelly high entry to the recitative “Wiewohl mien Herz” (Although my heart) for the soprano, which she managed with great credit, supported ably by an oboe and lower strings, though in the aria which followed “Ich will dir mein Herz schenken”  (I will give my heart to you) came one of the few passages in the work which to my ears needed more judicious balancing, where the oboes were too insistent in places for the singer’s lines to be clearly heard.

A highlight of the performance was the duet with chorus for soprano and alto “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” – the two soloists lyrical and sorrowful, their voices set against the anger of the chorus’s cries, the latter representing the fury of the apostles trying to resist Jesus’s capture, the choir spot-on with their entries under Peter Walls’ direction, and with the help of irruptive figurations from the bass instruments working up to and achieving a positively seismic outpouring at the climax of the chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?” (Have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds?) – a stirring effect!

Tenor Lachlan Craig was given his first opportunity at the point of the story where Jesus and his apostles go to the garden at Gethsemane to pray – firstly a kind of “word-melodrama”, shared by the soloist and the choir, “O Schmerz!” (O sorrow!), and then an aria whose words are also shared by the tenor and the choir, “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (I shall keep watch with Jesus). This was a very bright voice with an intense, almost “pinched” tone, not unlike fellow new Zealander Simon O’Neill’s voice-quality, accurate and intense. At one or two places in the aria the solo voice was put under strain, the awkwardness of some of the writing indicating that Bach was thinking in instrumental, rather than vocal terms when writing much of this music. However, Craig made a good fist of the extremely demanding recitative “Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lugen stille” (My Jesus is silent in the face of lies) and the following aria “Geduld!” (Patience!) after the first of the confrontations between Jesus and the High Priest The tenor had to work to phrase his lines at the brisk tempo set by the conductor for the aria, straining some of the highest notes in the process, but on the whole keeping his pitch steady.

Last of the singers was the bass David Morriss, whose well-rounded tones throughout his range and sense of theatrical variation of emphasis and tone-colour added a dimension of interest to everything he sang. He began with the recitative “Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder” (The Saviour falls down before his Father), whose sinister, slithery string accompaniments well reflected the bitterness and rancor of the imagery chosen by the poet – and continued with the aria “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” (Gladly will I bring myself ), which the singer began softly, subtly varying his delivery of the repetitions of the word “gerne” and making something grow from out of the beginning’s darkness of despair, so that the words countering Christ’s suffering and death become gentle, even sensual – “his mouth, which flows with milk and honey” – words that the singer delivered with the utmost relish.

Later, in the wake of Judas’s despair and suicide, came the bass aria “Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder!” (Give me back my Jesus) the singer’s tones soaring as the line rose, beautifully supported by the solo violin. And as Jesus was forced to carry his cross, helped by a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, whom the soldiers dragged from the crowd to assist, Bach’s bitter-sweet music consoled us, the bass recitative “Ja, freulich” (Yes, truly), accompanied by the beautifully pastoral sound of flutes, reminded us that life is a cross we must bear sooner or later; while the aria “Komm, süßes Kreuz” implored Christ to help us with carrying our own burdens of suffering – organ, bass viol and cello all supported the singer nobly, Morriss for his part handling the long vocal lines with great poise and dignity.

With the singers at every step of the way was the sterling support given by both chorus and orchestra, each group often divided, and with individual singers and players at certain points contributing vocal and instrumental solos. From the outer, the chorus’s response to Peter Walls’ direction was whole-hearted, detailed, varied and hugely satisfying. Nowhere was the concentration and focus more evident than with the grave and beautiful “Wenn ich einmal solo scheiden” (When I one day must depart from here), sung by the choir just before the upheaval accompanying Jesus’ death, the voices pointing the contrast with the ensuing chaos most dramatically with the sharply etched emphasis upon the words “Kraft denier Angst undo Pein” (By the strength of your agony and pain”). And when the full-blooded impact of the earthquake had ceased (the orchestra doing a splendidly visceral job with it all), the choir held us in thrall with its beautifully awed response “Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen” (Truly this was the Son of God).

As one would expect from these players, and from people such as Douglas Mews and Robert Oliver providing superb continuo support, the instrumental playing throughout from the Chiesa Ensemble was a joy to experience, thanks in no small part to Rebecca Struthers’ leadership and inspirational solo playing, with, as one example, lovely violin obbligato support (what one commentator called “virtuosic pathos”) for the contralto in “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott” (Have mercy, My God). All of it was held together with such strength, patience and aplomb by the direction of Peter Walls, whose conducting seemed to me to combine the clarity and precision of recent scholarship concerning early music performance with sufficient weight, gravity and breadth of utterance sometimes given short measure by some of these so-called “authentic” realizations of such music. It made for an extraordinarily satisfying and enriching musical experience – one suspects for both the audience and the musicians, in this case – and an occasion I think the Bach Choir can justly regard as a triumph.

 

 

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