Heinrich Schütz: St. Matthew Passion
The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart, with John Beaglehole (Evangelist) and Ken Ryan (Christus)
Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul
Saturday, 31 March 2012, 7.30pm
An appropriate pre-Easter work, this St Matthew Passion was presented in a slightly unusual way. The choir performed from the rear of the sanctuary, while the audience was mainly seated in the choir stalls and on chairs placed in the sanctuary between the choir stalls. There were a few people seated in the nave. The performance took place in near darkness, with just enough light for the choir to be able to read their scores. It made me think of being in a German church in the composer’s time, and hearing the work as the congregation would have.
By seating the audience close to the singers, and virtually not using the nave, the slow reverberation of the building did not assert itself as much as usual. Ken Ryan’s rich bass voice suffered more from ‘feedback’ than did John Beaglehole’s tenor, or the choir.
Instead of the words being printed in a programme, the English translations of the sung German were projected on a screen placed between the choir and the audience. The work is unaccompanied, and unlike J.S. Bach’s well-known Passion settings, there are no chorales or arias; apart from the final movement, the text is entirely St. Matthew’s gospel account of the events leading up to, and including, the Crucifixion, and of the burial of Jesus in the tomb.
Approximately 20 singers made up the choir; some of them took small solo roles. In the gloom I could recognise only Andrea Cochrane, who took not only several female roles, but also that of Judas Iscariot; all were admirably delivered.
From the opening attack, with instant smooth tone, the choir excelled itself. There was a wonderful unity of sound, and beautiful diminuendos. The maintenance of pitch throughout the work (despite a few aberrations from minor soloists, particularly Caiaphas) was a marvel; John Beaglehole was utterly reliable, apart from slightly falling pitch in the part where he reports on what Pilate said. The tenor has a very big role – there was a great deal for him to sing, but he did not flag; this was quite a tour de force. Michael Stewart had trained his singers well, with crisp rhythms and exemplary entries. The semi-dark allowed the focus to be entirely on the music and the message.
Bass Ken Ryan varied his tone and expression to deliver the character of Jesus and the meaning of the words throughout the performance; tenor Beaglehole less so. It could be argued that the Evangelist is the reporter, not an actor in the drama. Towards the end of the work however, he gave more characterisation. A large proportion of the music is for these two soloists only.
At 50 minutes long, Schütz’s work cannot readily be considered in the same class as Bach’s great, dramatic Passions. Yet it has its own drama – in the word-setting, and the pacing of the various recitatives, Jesus’s utterances, and in the chorus numbers. Some surprising harmonies for the chorus add to the drama.
The most dramatic part was that dealing with Pilate – both his role and that of the mob, demanding that Jesus be crucified. Here, the chorus was very strong. Women were part of the mob, but also part of the soldiers’ and priests’ choruses. There was much interweaving of parts in these choruses, but also sections of homophony, and word-painting.
Beaglehole was very fine in singing the translation of Jesus’s utterance which in English is “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, and the lovely pianissimo from the choir set it off beautifully, in “He calleth for Elijah”. Throughout, the German language was pronounced and projected very well.
The chorus of priests asking that the tomb be guarded was splendidly sung, as was the final chorus, “Christ to you be the glory”, which is the only comment on the action, the remainder of the words being all from the Biblical account. This was sung poignantly and with feeling, and made an exquisite end to the performance.
This performance proved to be appropriate in another way: Radio New Zealand Concert has Schütz as its Composer of the Week for the coming week, so listeners can expect to hear this work again in the coming days. Some of what follows is based on Indra Hughes’s introductory talk on radio.
Schütz wrote the St. Matthew Passion in his 80s, after he had survived the Plague, the Thirty Years War, and the loss of his wife and two young children. His early tuition with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice seems to have resurfaced in this work; it is written in stile antico, not the more dense and complex (and exciting) stile moderno, which he also studied, later in life, with Monteverdi, Gabrieli’s successor at St. Mark’s.
With this tuition behind him, Schütz brought back to Germany elements of the Italian style, which became a huge influence on the music of the latter country, not least contributing to the way in which J.S. Bach wrote his Passion settings, a century later. This influence can partly be attributed to the fact that his employment was in Dresden, the centre of musical life at the time, in Germany.
It was interesting, though, that in his old age Schütz reverted to the counterpoint of stile antico for this Passion. No instruments, no arias, no chorales or extended choruses in this work, although there are in others of his works.
Schütz’s is therefore an interesting time in church music history, since he straddled the renaissance and the baroque eras.