Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent’s St Matthew Passion: Professional but Somewhat Lacking Emotion

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bach: Soloists, Collegium Vocale Gent / Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 15.4.2017. (JR)

BachSt Matthew Passion BWV 244

Maximilian Schmitt (Evangelist)
Florian Boesch (Jesus)
Sebastian Myrus (Petrus/Pontifex II)
Philipp Kaven (Judas)
Alexandra Lewandowska (Uxor Pilatus/Ancilla I)
Viola Blache (Ancilla II)
Piotr Olech (Testis I)
Olivier Coiffet (Testis II)

Other soloists:
Dorothee Mields and Grace Davidson (sopranos)
Damien Guillon and Alex Potter (altos/counter-tenors)
Reinoud Van Mechelen and Thomas Hobbs (tenors)
Peter Kooij and Tobias Berndt (basses)

I have been extremely fortunate to have heard (and now be able to compare) three first-rate versions of the St Matthew Passion within the space of a year or so and sang in one myself (in an amateur choir I hasten to add). Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir in Lucerne comes top of my own personal chart, followed closely by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort at the International Bach Festival in Schaffhausen. That is however by means to belittle Philippe Herreweghe and his very fine Collegium Vocale Gent.

Herreweghe caught Harnoncourt’s attention in the 1970s and his Passion is much in the orthodox (period) Harnoncourt mould. As befits a Bach specialist (he is regarded as one of the founding fathers of baroque authentic practice) it’s all historically correct and his interpretation well considered. Herreweghe formed Collegium Vocale Gent some 45 years ago and the Bach vocal works are jewels in their crown. The choir consists of some 24 singers who take the chorus and supply some of the solo parts. It uses its own baroque ensemble and the sense of harmony between choir, soloists and ensemble is palpable.

Maximilian Schmitt, a young German tenor, sang the role of the Evangelist; faultless, clearest of diction; for some reason, and I can only put it down to personal preference, I prefer the more austere sound and burning intensity of Mark Padmore, admittedly a master in this role, or the more engaging sound and presence of Nicholas Mulroy (who sang the role by heart). Schmitt was at the other end of the vocal spectrum, almost fruity, a fuller more Romantic sound. I felt he lacked communication with the piece and with the audience.

Florian Boesch, on the other hand, was much more to my liking. He was an exemplary Jesus, acting and singing the part to perfection. His angry interjections to Pilate and the crowd were most convincing.

The choir sounded like a group of 24 soloists (in a good sense), perfectly blended with each other and with Herreweghe’s interpretation, and each one sounding capable of stepping in and singing a front of stage solo at any time. Chorales were rich and moving; ‘turba’ interjections spot on. ‘Sind Donner, sind Blitzen’ (not Santa’s reindeer) was taken extremely fast, the choir copied easily, of course; it made for an extremely exciting storm.

The other soloists were all of a very impressive standard. Damien Guillon is a recognised French countertenor, though to my ears rather on the ‘reedy’ side; I preferred the fuller sound of young English countertenor Alex Potter, who is making his mark, as a rising star. His vocal (and physical) presence outmatched that of Guillon, though he had considerably less to sing. Potter’s eye contact with the audience was marked.

Of the basses I was particularly taken by the resonant voice of Peter Kooij, though admittedly he gets to sing one of the best arias, ‘Mache Dich, meine Herze, rein’; and by Dorothee Mield’s angelic soprano. Thomas Hobbs, young English tenor, greatly impressed in ‘Geduld! Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen’, particularly in the tricky coloratura sections. Minor roles were all taken more than competently by other members of the choir.

The ‘ripieno’ chorus, sometimes sung by boy trebles, was taken by lady sopranos. I prefer the angelic sound of boy trebles – born probably of having been a boy treble myself.

The orchestral ensemble was a marvel, particular leader (of Orchestra I) Christine Busch for her animated accompaniment of Guillon in ‘Erbarme mich’ and leader of Orchestra II Baptiste Lopez in ‘Gibt mir meinen Jesum wieder’. Marcel Ponselle, looking remarkably like J.S. Bach himself, shone on oboe, possibly one he had made himself. Romina Lischka was noteworthy on viola da gamba.

Herreweghe, who turns 70 in a couple of weeks, was sprightly, with a fluid but not extrovert conducting style. Some might find his beat hard to follow. I missed a slight lack of ‘swing’ which Gardiner manages to bring out in this music. Herreweghe had one idiosyncratic (but harmless) moment; at the end of Part I he had the double basses hold on to the long note well after the other instruments had finished.

The hall was bursting at the seams, Zurich’s Flemish contingent were out in force. It is transcendent music of course, but I left the concert strangely unmoved; it was professional and exquisitely sung but it was not quite in the Gardiner class, nor it did have the intimacy and spirituality of McCreesh.

Every player and singer received a tulip at the end – perhaps one from old Amsterdam?

John Rhodes

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