The St. Matthew Passion: Glorious Bach, Confusing Production

United StatesUnited States Bach, St. Matthew Passion: Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Iván Fischer (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York 28.3.2013 (SSM)

John Tessier, Tenor (Evangelist)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Bass-Baritone (Jesus)
Dominique Labelle, Soprano
Lianne Coble, Soprano
Barbara Kozelj, Mezzo- Soprano
Silvie Jensen, Mezzo-Soprano
Steven Caldicott Wilson, Tenor
Mischa Bouvier, Baritone
Steven Moore, Bass
Musica Sacra
Kent Tritle, Music Director

Bach is in the air and in the ears of New Yorkers with the kind of attention usually reserved for a composer’s commemorative year such as 1985 (Bach’s 300th birthday) or 2000 (the 250th anniversary of his death). New York’s classical music station WQXR is nearing the end of a ten-day marathon of all of Bach’s music. It began on March 21st, the 328th anniversary of Bach’s birth, and it ends on Easter Sunday. Their “Bach 360°” festival includes free concerts, “How Bach Changed My Life” contests and a gift for donations of a funereal black Bach tote bag that was announced along with witty puns on the word “todt.” At the same time, the NY Philharmonic is nearing the end of a month-long festival entitled “The Bach Variations.”

Carnegie Hall presented the St. Matthew Passion in 1992 and again in 2007 with a performance by Helmuth Rilling and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Why such a long hiatus between productions of what is generally considered one of Western music’s greatest achievements: a fear perhaps of being labeled old-fashioned, inauthentic or historically uninformed? As I wrote in a review of Bach’s Mass in B Minor , “What we are really talking about is nothing more than the continual changing of musical taste: each generation develops its own sensibility as to what is musically correct.” A generation that will fill an auditorium to hear contemporary pieces is an audience that will also accept Bach’s music whether presented on original instruments or not.

On Thursday night those who had looked online or read Playbill may well have been confused. The Carnegie Hall online information page indicated the performance would last two hours and thirty minutes including intermission, while Playbill gave the performance time as two hours and ten minutes. It would have been the quickest performance ever if the timings were true: no recording of the 1727 version has ever been done in less than two hours and thirty minutes. One result of this error was a slow departure of audience members who possibly had transportation deadlines or other obligations. With a work this sacred, complex and demanding of one’s attention, the exodus made it difficult to concentrate on Part II.

Equally confusing was the stage setup. Bach’s score requires two identical choruses and two almost identical orchestras. But what reasoning was there behind the second group having oboes and flutes in the front rows instead of strings as in the first group? I thought it was a brilliant idea to have the ripieno group leave the chorus to sing downstage the cantus firmus of the opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen.” But why wasn’t it done for the other chorus, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross,” which also uses a cantus firmus?

Overall, however, the performance was excellent: well constructed, moderate in timing, sensitive to the subtle changes in phrasing and pacing and emotionally potent. Most to be praised was mezzo Barbara Kozelj whose expressive rounded voice filled the hall, particularly so in “Buss und Reu.” Dominique Labelle’s voice moved a little too much into the operatic realm, and she flagged somewhat in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.” Both John Tessier as the Evangelist and Hanno Müller-Brachmann as Jesus carried the drama forward, attentive to the tone-painting Bach applies to so much of the text. The members of Musica Sacra responded admirably to Fischer’s well-judged conducting style. Although there was no problem in hearing the obligatto accompaniment for the single instrument arias, such as the violin in “Erbarme Dicht, mein Gott” or oboe in “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken,” it might have been more powerful if they performed downstage with the solo vocalists.

For me, I doubt that any performance of the SMP will ever come close to the Jonathan Miller staged adaptations at BAM in 2001 and 2009, but this production was laudable. Hopefully, we will not have to wait years to see this monumental work again at Carnegie Hall.