A St. Matthew Passion in Sympathy with Bach’s Intentions

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, St. Matthew Passion: Soloists, Choir of Merton College and Oxford Baroque / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor). Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 6.4.2014 (CR)


James Oxley (Evangelist)
Giles Underwood (Christus)
Emma Kirkby (Soprano)
Grace Durham (Messo-soprano)
Nick Pritchard (Tenor)
James Birchall (Bass)

The fifth Passiontide at Merton Festival had already, this year, featured the premiere of a new Passion setting by Gabriel Jackson. Its climax was marked, however, by the greatest setting of them all, that according to St Matthew by Bach, first heard in Leipzig in 1727.

This performance came over, on the whole, with a sense of liturgical decorum rather than unsettling dramatic force, perhaps unsurprisingly from a choir and conductor whose activities are focused on accompanying ecclesiastical services for the most part.  Benjamin Nicholas ensured that the vocal soloists followed in the same vein, delivering their recitatives and arias largely as contemplative musings upon the action, rather than operatic discourses caught up in the heat of the narrative itself. The clear exception was James Oxley’s Evangelist – a role which features only recitative and is responsible for keeping the drama moving along. As such, he frequently sang with an urgency and tension which brought to life, musically, the unfolding narrative.

Alongside him, Giles Underwood as Jesus sounded less dramatically committed. Certainly there was a solemnity of tone in his voice, but quite often the delivery of his recitatives and ariosos sounded too casual, not helped by the sometimes weak halo of sound provided by Oxford Baroque’s strings. One sometimes sees, in printed editions of the Gospels, Jesus’s words in a different colour from the surrounding text; Bach adds similar gravity to the music he gives to Jesus, and that ought to come over in performance. It is possible to achieve this without sounding mannered. However, Underwood sang Jesus’s last words “Eli, eli, lama sabachtani” as an almost oppressed wail, surely a deliberate act of interpretation on his part.

Among the other soloists Emma Kirkby was the established star presiding over a group of rising professionals. Kirkby’s voice is not what it once was, but the instantly recognisable freshness in her singing was certainly still there: it was mainly in the upper register where this became strained and the music then seemed weighed down, as it did in ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’. Both Grace Durham and Nick Pritchard sang with winning clarity and sensitivity, in particular the latter honing in well on the torment and passion of his recitative with the chorus ‘O Schmerz! Hier zittert’, and the aria ‘Geduld, Geduld!’ – with a paradoxically conflicting sense of impatience expressed at “Schimpf und Spott” (“shame and scorn”). Although Durham sang ‘Erbarme dich’ melodiously, the aria seemed hard-driven, Bach’s extraordinarily anguished harmonies being rather skated over, but this was more a problem of overall direction here, rather than Durham’s interpretation specifically.

James Birchall in the bass role was not very secure musically, with words and notes not always very clear. ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ sometimes seemed to meander, and though ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ was suitably meditative, some mistiming almost ground the aria to a halt at one point. He also took the part of Pilate, which was better. Otherwise, the roles of Peter (except ‘Erbarme dich’, as noted) and Judas were taken by unnamed soloists from the Merton Choir, Peter sounding a little garbled, but Judas’s role enunciated with suitable sternness and darkness.

Incidentally, it was a shame that nobody had thought to remove the lectern in the middle of the Chapel, as it impeded a clear view of the ensemble for most of the audience – especially of the soloists as they came forward to sing their arias.

Virtually as important as the Evangelist’s role in keeping the various strands of the drama together is the choir – taking up, turn by turn about, the parts of the crowd, a devout congregation musing upon the spiritual significance of what is witnessed, and something like a Greek chorus reflecting upon events more dispassionately. Musically the Merton College Choir were highly proficient, and they also fulfilled their dramatic function in delineating different characters according to the varying roles they assumed. Rage and violence were evident as they personified the crowd baying for Jesus’s death, and textural cohesion was present in the reflective choruses (even if broader tempi might have been chosen to instil greater weight in the opening and closing choruses).

There was also a good sense of continuity between the chorale phrases and the orchestral interludes of the chorale fantasia ending Part One, ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß’, and it was an inspired stroke to position the sopranos for the choral cantus firmus ‘O Lamm Gottes unschuldig’ of the opening chorus out in the ante-chapel behind most of the audience, so that it seemed like an ethereal comment upon the incidents about to take place. Commendably, Benjamin Nicholas also crafted the interspersed chorale verses as an integral part of the drama, sometimes continuing the urgent momentum of the narrative, at other times allowing them to act as a pause for thought, most notably in the hushed delivery of ‘Wenn ich einmal’ immediately after Jesus’ death.

On the whole, Oxford Baroque underlined Nicholas’s interpretation as a meditation upon the Passion story by not unduly emphasising any particular parts or characteristics of the work over the others. The violin and violone soloists did not hijack the numbers in which they appeared as bravura displays for themselves, although the two oboes in the sequence ‘Ach Golgotha’ – ‘Sehet, Jesus had die Hand’ could have been better focused.

Although not a perfect performance in all its aspects, then, it was certainly consistent in its interpretive aims, and these, along with the scale and collegiate context of the performers involved may not have been so far from what Bach had in mind.

Curtis Rogers

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