Twice As Much Passion Makes Fascinating Laboratory

United StatesUnited States  J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion: Soloists, Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 22.2.2014 (BJ)

Evangelist: Thomas Cooley, tenor
Jesus: Tyler Duncan, baritone
Shannon Mercer and Dorothy Mields, sopranos
Laura Pudwell, mezzo-soprano
Terry Wey, countertenor
Charles Daniels and Aaron Sheehan, tenors
Matthew Brook, bass-baritone: Judas, Peter

J.S. Bach, St. John Passion: Soloists, Pacific MusicWorks Baroque Orchestra, Stephen Stubbs (conductor and lute), Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 1.3.2014 (BJ)

Evangelist: Charles Daniels, tenor
Jesus: Matthew Brook, bass-baritone
Dorothy Mields and Shannon Mercer, sopranos
Terry Wey, countertenor
Laura Pudwell, mezzo-soprano
Thomas Cooley and Aaron Sheehan, tenors
Tyler Duncan, baritone

This collaboration between Stephen Stubbs’s early-music ensemble, Pacific MusicWorks, and Ludovic Morlot’s Seattle Symphony was the innovative and deeply satisfying result of Morlot’s telling Stubbs that he wanted to conduct his first St. Matthew Passion in Seattle, and requesting his advice on how to do “the best version of the piece that can be done with a modern orchestra in a large hall.”

The two conductors decided to present Bach’s sharply contrasted settings of the Passion story—the St. Matthew richly contemplative in tone and monumental in scale, the St. John more compact and more succinctly dramatic—in similarly contrasted performances. One fascinating aspect of the plan was that the same group of vocal soloists was employed in both works.

The assignment of roles to the singers, however, differed in the two works. Whereas Morlot entrusted the chorales and other choral numbers of the St. Matthew setting to roughly fifty members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, supplemented where appropriate by the Northwest Boychoir, Stubbs had his St. John soloists serving also as chorus, singing with just two voices to each solo part, as was the practice in at least some of Bach’s own performances. And not only were the soloists’ changing achievements illuminated: it was clear that the contrasting characteristics of Benaroya Hall’s two auditoriums played a major role in the change.

For anyone attending on both weekends, Stubbs’s enthralling account of the St. John Passion may well have demonstrated that bigger, while it offers its own legitimate satisfactions, is not necessarily better. Yet Morlot’s large-scale St. Matthew was a superb achievement in its own right.

Even before his performance began, the arrival of the musicians on the stage was strikingly dramatic: chorus and orchestra members alike wandered on in seeming disorder, for all the world like a postmodern production of Parsifal, yet clearly knowing exactly where on the platform each was headed. In the actual performance, moreover, the flexible movements of soloists with dramatic roles around the stage served to make them seem less like performers and more like the characters they were portraying. Pilate, for example, when the crowd urged him to have Jesus’s tomb guarded, responded that they had guards and should see to it themselves, and then walked dismissively offstage.

These highly effective touches would not have been of much consequence had the performance not achieved musical results of rare quality. Joseph Crnko’s two choruses sang with fervor and precision. The orchestra managed to blend powerful expression with a laudable absence of excessive romanticism in tone and phrasing. Emma McGrath in particular offered polished violin solos in the arias “Erbarme dich” and “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder.” The vocal soloists, too, attained a standard that could hardly have been surpassed, or even equaled, by any group of singers that might have been assembled—and it was fascinating to observe the variance in their respective performances when we came to the St. John Passion a week later.

One especially striking difference was that between the contributions of the two Evangelists. Both are front-rank exponents of the part, but the immediacy of Charles Daniels’s riveting narration benefitted notably from what might be called the built-in intimacy of Nordstrom Hall’s size and acoustics. In the St. Matthew, though Thomas Cooley was impressively specific in emphasizing the turning points of the story, I felt that his singing ranged too widely between a whisper (which made little impression in the broad spaces of the Taper Auditorium) and a near-shout, with not much in between. Surely a phrase like the one declaring that “Immediately the cock crew” can make a deeper impact if sung relatively softly than it did in the stentorian tone Cooley brought to it. In the tenor arias of the St. John, by contrast, he was entirely admirable.

Tyler Duncan’s Jesus in the St. Matthew was dignified and rich in tone, but too often the notes seemed detached from each other. It was not until late in the work that the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” showed him fully capable of spinning a smooth legato line when he wants to. (But what, I wondered, was Jesus doing singing this aria in any case? Was there some significant symbolism intended in this shift between roles? It recalled Erich Kleiber’s dumbfounding assignment of Marcellina’s aria to the Susanna soprano in his otherwise impeccable recording of Le nozze di Figaro.)

In the St. John, Duncan’s line was altogether more consistently legato, and here Matthew Brook, mostly restricted to the smaller dramatic roles in the St. Matthew, had room to display profoundly moving artistry both as Jesus and in the arias. Similarly, Nordstrom’s acoustics enabled the young countertenor Terry Wey to show himself as persuasive in quiet music as in more forceful passages. In the St. Matthew, there had been rather too much swelling and fading in his line. In the aria with chorus “Sehet, Jesus hat die hand,” the bewitching way I heard Alfred Deller sing the rising stepped scale on the words “ihr verlass’nen Küchlein ihr” in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral more than 60 years ago remains indelibly in my mind. Wey’s delivery of it made little impression. But his singing in the St. John revealed the quality of an already sumptuous voice more persuasively, and showed that Wey is definitely a talent to watch.

Morlot and Stubbs, in their different ways, conducted their respective assignments with total conviction. I did feel that Morlot’s tempo for the final chorus in the St. Matthew was a tad too fast: Bach’s setting of “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” in essence evokes the character of a majestic sarabande, and it should move like one. But in every other respect, this was one of the finest performances of the St. Matthew I have ever heard, and fully deserved the standing ovation it received. It was gratifying that one of the biggest cheers greeted an end-of-evening bow for the multi-talented Stubbs, whose playing of the obbligato in the aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz,” restored from the viola da gamba to its original version on the lute, had held the audience’s collective breath in magical suspension.

 In the St. John Passion, the period instruments of the Pacific MusicWorks orchestra were a delight to listen to, and meshed impeccably with the eight voices heard in the choral numbers. The obbligato viole d’amore parts in the bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel’,” were ravishingly played. Stubbs, himself again supplying delicate tone and stylish phrasing on the lute, paced the whole work to perfection, and ended it brilliantly by beginning the final chorale with just one voice to a part and then building to a climax of vocal splendor and compelling emotional power.

 Altogether this was a performance that revealed the St. John Passion to be a greater work than I have thought it in the past. It concluded a two-week enterprise of high artistic reach and equally high grasp.

Bernard Jacobson

Parts of this review appeared also in the Seattle Times.