St. Matthew Passion at the International Bach Festival in Schaffhausen

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bach:  Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh (conductor),  Chorus I: Mhairi Lawson, Anna Stéphany, Nicholas Mulroy, Benjamin Appl. Chorus II: Sophie Junker, Helen Charlston, Thomas Walker, Stephan Loges. Kirche St. Johann, Schaffhausen 5.5.2016. (JR)

Bach, St. Matthew Passion

The International Bach Festival (or Internationales Bachfest to give its proper German title) started life just after the Second World War and this year marks its 26th festival which, if my maths is right, is a Festival every 2 to 3 years; the last one was two years ago.

“Where’s Schaffhausen?” I hear some of you ask. It’s Switzerland’s most northerly town of any size, on the north bank of the Rhine, roughly half-way between Basle to the West and the German town of Constance to the East. It’s a small, pretty, walled medieval town with an impressive fortress dominating the majestic river. Just downstream are the mighty Rhine Falls, Europe’s largest plain waterfall.

The Festival can count itself fortunate indeed to have attracted the illustrious Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and Players to perform in a local church, appropriately for Ascension Day, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”. The church is quite large, stripped bare by the Lutherans in the Middle Ages, and proved an excellent acoustic for the work and the forces. I say “forces” but in reality McCreesh favours such a tiny band of singers, you cannot really use the word “force”. McCreesh is a leading follower of the Joshua Rifkin school of minimalism in Bach, first proposed in 1981, namely one singer per choral line. I must say that I approached the concert with some trepidation, having recently sung the work in Zurich’s Tonhalle with an amateur chorus of around 100 (plus boys’ choir). John Eliot Gardiner brought his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists to the Lucerne Festival earlier this year with a chorus of about 20 plus added soloists (Mark Padmore, no less, as the Evangelist). He used the local boys choir in addition. McCreesh pares this already quite small number down to the bone, one singer per vocal line, and soloists taken from that minute number. As can be imagined, there are gains and losses to this approach.

These were no ordinary chorus-members but highly experienced, young prize-winning singers, to an extent already established in the world of Lieder, oratorio and opera. (McCreesh’s 2003 highly regarded recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon features Padmore, Gilchrist and Kozena amongst others).

Let me start with the undeniable star of the show, Nicholas Mulroy. He sang the role of the Evangelist impeccably and had enough vocal strength to sing the tenor line in Chorus I. Having recently heard Padmore in Lucerne, I can say that whilst Mulroy is not quite as “heady” as Padmore, Mulroy was very much his equal and there can be no higher praise. (Allen is a different style of Evangelist, more forceful, but some find he bellows). Mulroy studied Modern Languages (and voice) at Cambridge: his German pronunciation was faultless, his diction exact. His aria “Ich will bei meinem Jesu schlafen” was most touching. At the end he was the only soloist to be raucously cheered, deservedly so as he also managed to learn the whole Passion by rote (chorus parts, chorales, recitative and arias) glancing only at his score once or twice to remind himself what came next. His was the only score to be covered in black and clearly well-thumbed, the others used scores still with their pristine blue Bärenreiter cover. The biography on his own website quotes an Observer critic, “Mulroy is an Evangelist of choice” – I could not agree more.

Next to him stood impressive young German bass Benjamin Appl, a former Regensburger Domspatz; tall, blond, handsome and sonorous, he could, after all, be the son of God – perhaps a bit too Teutonic on reflection. He lavished attention on “Komm süsses Kreuz” and his rendition of “Mache Dich, mein Herze rein” had his co-soloists smiling with admiration throughout.

Mhairi Lawson was the soprano in Chorus I and her voice was suitably angelic. She also displayed considerable stage presence, as in “ich will Dir mein Herzen schenken” and “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben”.

Warm-toned Anna Stéphany is a known quantity in these parts, having joined Zurich Opera’s ensemble a few years ago – Zurich is about 45 minutes’ drive south of Schaffhausen. Her aria “Buss und Reu” was beautifully sung, McCreesh put down his baton and just listened. “Erbarme mich” also impressed, though the lovely violin solo does tend to steal some of the limelight.

That brings me to Chorus II, perhaps a less high-profile line-up but impressive nonetheless.  Belgian soprano Sophie Junker was crisp and articulate in “Blute nur” and crystalline in her chorus interjections.

Helen Charlston is a British mezzo, still studying, but already garnering excellent reviews. Her aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen” was lovingly sung and her contributions to the chorus always blended perfectly.

Tenor Thomas Walker suffered a little by always being contrasted with his direct opposite number in Chorus I, Nicholas Mulroy, who voice was usually stronger when they sang toegther. Nonetheless, his “Geduld” aria was impressive on every count.

Finally, Dresden bass Stephan Loges – not an unknown vocal quantity. He proved a master of the roller-coaster intonation in “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” and his deep low notes frequently resonated round the pews. “Gebt mir meinem Jesu wieder” was taken at break-neck speed, aided by a fine violin solo from Orchestra II’s leader.

That leaves Paul McCreesh and his baroque instrumentalists. They know this piece to perfection. Other than one flautist, McCreesh did not (unlike Gardiner) get them to stand or come to the front when playing a prominent role, a particular pity in the case of the viola da gamba player who played with much conviction and skill.

So, to the gains and losses of the minimalist approach: it has to be said that the small number of singers takes a while to get used to. The great opening chorus “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” failed to win me over; it might have been the cavernous acoustic, or the absence of boy trebles, or the singers needed time to settle in and blend. They probably don’t sing together as often as the members of the Monteverdi Choir. The opening chorus just did not come together, and McCreesh’s very fast pace didn’t help.

After that though, the ever-brisk performance (three hours including a short interval) won me over to quite a degree, the small forces added undeniably to the immediacy of impact. Chorales were all taken fast, without fermatas, diction crisp, effect transparent. Interjections by Chorus II were razor-sharp and spot-on. The “Donner and Blitzen” chorus was, however, more of an April shower, it comes over more impressively with a larger number of singers; I missed the thrill of sheer volume. The final “O Mensch” chorus also didn’t quite have enough sweetness and impact.

The singers and conductor all received flowers – attached to a bottle of fine local wine. The Festival needs better marketing outside Schaffhausen, as concert-goers appeared to be mainly locals and the church was not full. Few music-lovers even in Zurich know of the festival and knew that a concert of this calibre was on offer.  Sponsors such as IWC (International Watch Company), based in Schaffhausen, should be asked to dig deeper into their marketing budget and ensure the Festival becomes better known next time around and able to attract players of the same very high quality. The Festival needs to be more widely known and supported – I hope this review helps.

John Rhodes

About the Schaffhausen Bach Festival visit

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