Jordi Savall Makes Bach’s Matthäus-Passion a Profound Meditation

FranceFrance Holy Week at Versailles I – Bach, Matthäus-Passion BWV 244: La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall (conductor), Chapelle Royale, Versailles 17.4.2019. (CC)

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski

Bach – Matthäus-Passion

Evangelist – Florian Sievers
Jesus – Matthias Winckhler
Judas Iscariot – Marc Mauillon
St. Peter – Marco Scavazza
High Priest – Javier Jiménez-Cuevas
Pontius Pilate – Markus Volpert
Maid I – Carmit Natan
Maid II – Eulàlia Fantova (Maid II)
Priest I – Simón Millán
Priest II – Pieter Stas
Pilate’s Wife – Elionor Martínez
Witness I – David Sagastume
Witness II – David Hernández
Jura – Maîtrise du Conservatoire de Dole

The beautiful Royal Chapel at Versailles was the setting for this performance of the Saint Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion), the first of a sequence of sacred concerts which I have covered for Seen and Heard International at this venue over some four days (a Monteverdi Ritorno, also reviewed, came under a more secular umbrella and thus with separate programme booklet). A St John Passion was performed in the same space on April 6, with La Chapelle Harmonique and Valentin Tournet, and soloists including Stuart Jackson as the Evangelist and Thomas Stimmel as Jesus.

Jordi Savall’s reading of the St Matthew Passion, possibly influenced to some degree by the resonant chapel acoustic, gave the music much space to breathe, allowing for what amounted to an immersive experience. In terms of direction, Savall himself used minimal movements throughout to convey his meaning, and while some might ascribe that to age, there is no doubt that it increased the devotional aspect of the performance; this was certainly not Passion as opera, instead it was a space where much of the drama was interior. When the orchestra did dig in (the opening of the bass aria ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder’, for example) it made for all the more effect. Savall has previously stated that the St Matthew Passion is about someone (Jesus) who was a victim of religious intolerance and of those in power, a message that is as relevant today as it was in the Jesus legend; here it was the peaceful, sustaining certainty of Jesus’s faith in his chosen deity that seemed to suffuse the account.

The famous opening chorus was warm-sounding but the woodwind contributions were swimmy, even from just a few rows from the front. The antiphonal question-and-answer choral effects worked well, but it was actually in the chorales that the choir triumphed throughout, their perfectly phrased and balanced ‘Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen’ leading the way, their final ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’ infinitely touching. A measure of the interior spaces they could conjure was the brief moment that is ‘Ich will hier bei dir stehen’, the inner-voice movements at cadential points making a huge emotional difference, Bach’s writing fully internalised by the participants.

The Evangelist, the tenor Florian Sievers, was a revelation, his voice strong and clear. Sievers is a real find; discographically, he appears on Musicweb International on a CPO disc of music by Rosenmüller (review) and a disc of Reger’s complete Chorale Cantatas, also on CPO (review). Marc Mauillon, who is described as “sometimes tenor, sometimes baritone” on his Wikipedia page, was a powerfully present Judas Iscariot.

If Matthias Winckhler had to work rather hard in the role of Jesus, Markus Volpert’s Pontius Pilate was remarkable, his ‘Bist du der Juden König?’ beautifully, powerfully done. Vibrato was not entirely consistent amongst the soloists, mostly kept to a minimum, with Glaswegian soprano Rachel Redmond a little too lavish in this regard; nevertheless, the freedom of her voice and her pure slurs balanced this. Marco Scavazza was a solid Saint Peter.

Instrumental contributions were excellent throughout, none more so than the solo violin contribution to ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’, played here by Marta Mathéu. A surprise, perhaps, was that Savall himself played the gamba obbligatos for the bass aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ and the tenor ‘Geduld!’, the latter with its tricky, dotted, angular shapes for the gamba (brilliantly done by Savall). The move to performance seemed suddenly to narrow the focus down to a chamber intensity, drawing the audience in even further, while the two flutes for the excellent ‘Buß und Reu’ garlanded the superb counter-tenor line.

Not a Matthew Passion for everybody, one suspects, but a profound meditation certainly. Le Concert des Nations clearly adores Savall, their concentration unflappable over the three hours-plus duration (including interval).

Colin Clarke   

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