Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bach's elusive Passion

Harry Christophers conducting soloists and orchestra in the St. Matthew Passion - photo: Kyle T. Hemingway.
I've been pondering Handel and Haydn's version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion for some time now (since last weekend), and Hub Review readers know what that means: it's hard to come to a clear decision about it.   The piece itself, of course, is a monument - really a touchstone - of Western music; the Bach family referred to it as "the great Passion," and the master himself took care to execute a definitive edition, on "the finest paper available."  So I was grateful to hear the work again; to be honest, I haven't heard it in years - it was once a staple of the H&H repertory, and these performances were partly intended as a means of reconnection to this great organization's venerable past.

But again to be honest, the St. Matthew Passion is also a bear, sprawling, multi-foliate, and perhaps even somewhat incoherent in its ambitious attempt to weave together contrasting personal, communal, and historical visions of the tale of Christ's crucifixion.  Now before you start screaming - a lot of great works of art are somewhat incoherent (people have made that argument about Hamlet, for instance); but the aesthetic gaps loom particularly wide in the St. Matthew Passion, and I'm not sure that conductor Harry Christophers (brilliant as much of his work was here), quite bridged them in these performances.


Here's why. St. Matthew basically runs along three parallel tracks - center stage is the story of the gospel, partly declaimed by an "Evangelist" (Matthew himself, we assume), and partly enacted by its various players, and always crackling with a remarkable sense of musical and emotional drama.  Mr. Christophers is one of the most naturally dramatic of our local conductors - and he was blessed with a truly riveting Evangelist in Joshua Ellicott, and a tragically self-aware Jesus in Matthew Brook; so all of this was absolutely terrific.

Then there are the familiar (and gorgeously moving) chorales, drawn from existing hymns and folk-songs, which convey the response of the community - or perhaps history - to these events.  Here a larger chorus than the core Christophers usually works with delivered slightly less than the pin-point accuracy we're used to hearing from Handel and Haydn; but after suffering through Missa Solemnis at the BSO a few weeks ago, I thought they still sounded pretty damn good (and after all, they were singing in German).  More problematic was Christophers' decision to place the smaller solos (done by chorus members) around the stage - some of these positions, it turned out, revealed unexpected acoustic quirks in Symphony Hall. ( I am happy to report, however, that the members of the Young Men's and Young Women's Choruses, grouped at the sides of the stage, sounded fine.)

But then there are the solo recitatives and arias that stud the piece, in which we essentially eavesdrop on Bach's personal response to the Easter story; and here the performance faltered, at least in its singing (the instrumentalists generally held to H&H's dazzling standards).  This is getting to be a familiar story, I'm afraid, where the H&H chorus and orchestra regularly outshine the soloists.  This time around, however, the two male leads, as I mentioned, were sterling, and the supporting tenor and baritone were strong; it was the women who were weaker - chiefly because one of them was Gillian Keith, who has a lovely voice, I admit, but who is one of the most superficial vocal actresses I can think of.  Here she was typically simpering and self-involved, though she did hit pretty, pearly tones; and I think it's worth noting that once again, she was literally under-dressed in a floor-length nightie and a hair-do out of Lulu.   Mezzo Monica Groop made a far better impression both in her fashion choices and vocals, which were particularly affecting in “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott" (where she was exquisitely partnered by violinist Aisslinn Nosky).

But even she was sometimes just sweetly blank, and this was really too bad, because the arias are a rare key to what was intensely personal for Bach - his Christian faith, which was heartfelt, and perhaps even all-consuming; here, for once, the great composer doesn't attempt to conjure the music of the spheres, but rather his song of himself.  But Christophers seemed to grope for a cohesive approach to these meditations, and so even Groop resorted to a rather anodyne kind of sorrow, and the standard-classical-music-issue version of "beauty."  Given the intense, individualized commitments of Ellicott and Brook, you couldn't help but feel that something was missing - and the urgency of the performance seemed to flag.

Oddly, though, Christophers drew exquisite work from his orchestra in many of these passages.  The woodwinds are by now acknowledged as one of the glories of the H&H ensemble, but Stephen Hammer (oboe) seemed to outdo himself here, as did Christopher Krueger (flute) and Andrew Schwartz (bassoon).  The strings were likewise in fine shape; I noticed sparkling work from Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba, and Guy Fishman on cello.  These moments, coupled with generally fine work from the chorus, and the stunning performances of Matthew Brook and particularly Joshua Ellicott, led in my mind to one of those classic glass-half-empty/half-full debates; but I think at its most passionate, this Passion was enough to make a Bach fan's cup runneth over.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading your reaction to Gillian Keith's concert dress -- my reaction when I saw her walk on stage for the Sunday performance was "is she trying to be Madonna or Lady Gaga?" The sparkly jet black trim and jewelry were too goth or punk for this getting older woman too.

    I liked that the members of the Young Men's and Young Women's Choruses were placed where they could see (especially the soloists) and be seen. I admired their poise at having to sing nearly into the ears of the seated soloists.

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