Boston Early Music Festival unearths treasure with Sebastiani’s “St. Matthew Passion”

April 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm

By David Wright

The Boston Early Music Festival performed Johann Sebastiani’s “St. Matthew Passion” Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Composer Johann Sebastiani thought big.  At least, so said Paul O’Dette in program notes for the moving performance of Sebastiani’s Passion According to St. Matthew that he led Friday night with the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber & Vocal Ensembles in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

For his setting of the biblical Good Friday narrative, Sebastiani (1622-1683) specified not only a five-part chorus, a quartet of violas da gamba, and two violins, but an expanded continuo section consisting of “chest organ, positive, spinet, or harpsichord, along with other available subtle instruments such as lutes, theorbos, etc.”

Friday’s performance obliged, with O’Dette and Ensembles co-director Stephen Stubbs on theorbos (very long-necked lutes) and Michael Sponseller on organ and harpsichord.

Inevitably, however, 21st-century ears intervened, and the sonic spectacular of 1663 came across as a modest affair compared to the grander passions and oratorios of later eras—yet no less touching and expressive for that.

Trimming their vocal sails to fit the small hall and Sebastiani’s reserved style, the six singers mostly adopted a conversational tone, telling a somber and often mysterious story in an intimate setting. Occasionally, in fact, they underestimated the robust rumble of four viols in counterpoint, and their voices were somewhat obscured.

Tenor James Taylor as the Evangelist, however, was clear, expressive, and audible throughout, effectively delivering his lines in the Florentine recitative style, which Sebastiani is thought to have picked up (along with his un-German-sounding last name) during his studies in Italy.  A 1663 listener in Sebastiani’s home city of Königsberg would likely have been startled by the coupling of this singing innovation with the familiar sound of viol accompaniment.

Except for a few bursts of melisma at the story’s most dramatic moments, Sebastiani’s Evangelist was not a vocally showy part.  But Taylor left a strong impression nonetheless with the variety of his delivery and his sensitivity to every emotional wrinkle in the story and the musical setting of it.

Although the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is a vivid character capable of the full range of human emotions from anger to tenderness to sarcastic humor, German passions in Sebastiani’s day and later tended to hold Jesus at a reverent distance, emphasizing the mystery of his existence.  In this work, Sebastiani set Jesus’s utterances mainly in the most sepulchral register of the bass voice, partly to denote authority and partly for the sonic contrast between the voice and the silvery radiance of the two violins that accompany it.

As if to convey both the importance and the distance of Jesus, bass João Fernandez sang at center stage, but remained seated throughout the performance.   Walking a fine line of expressivity in the role, Fernandez responded aptly to the composer’s discreet evocations of emotion in the character.

Countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Jason McStoots, and bass John Taylor Ward had an easier time of it with their non-divine characters—respectively Judas, Caiaphas/Pilate, and Peter—permitting them some red-blooded emotion within the reverent frame of Sebastiani’s setting.  Of the three, McStoots was most consistently audible, while the others sang in an attractive but soft-edged style that put them at a disadvantage to the viols and the enhanced continuo.

A special role in the performance—and, one might say, in music history—was played by mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah, who sang the Lutheran chorales interspersed as pious meditations throughout the narrative.  Sebastiani is thought to have been the first to include this feature, now so familiar from the passions of J.S. Bach and Handel.

Sung as solos to a rich accompaniment of contrapuntal viols and continuo, the simple chorale melodies, and the devotional sentiments of their texts, provided luminous, clarifying moments amid the complications of the passion narrative.

Reutter-Harrah sang the chorales just right, simply and with almost no vibrato, like the young woman with the pretty voice in the next pew at Sunday service. That this is not the only vocal timbre in Reutter-Harrah’s bag was evident during her brief but dramatic appearance as Pilate’s wife, announcing her dream about Jesus.

All the singers except Fernandez joined in the well-blended choruses for the crowd, or turba, one singer to a part, but artfully composed by Sebastiani to sound like more.

O’Dette and his colleagues took advantage of some breaks in Sebastiani’s score for spoken readings or sermons to interpolate musical interludes by other composers.  The first of these, the Sonata Secunda in E minor for two violins and continuo by Johann Rosenmüller, followed Peter’s denial of Jesus with a piece displaying the interpretive talents of violinists Robert Mealy and Cynthia Roberts.  Although the sonata was, on its own, a delightfully fantastic and capricious piece in a variety of moods and tempos, it seemed a curious interruption to the passion narrative.

More integral to the mood of the evening were the other two interpolations, an Intrada and Lamento for four viols without continuo by David Funck, and Johann Christoph Bach’s Lamento, “Ach,dass ich Wassers g’nug hatte.”  Funck’s viol pieces, as skillfully interpreted by gamba players Christel Thielmann, Beiliang Zhu, Arnie Tanimoto, and Laura Jeppesen, had the tunefulness and contrapuntal richness of chorale settings by J.S. Bach.

In his day Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian’s older cousin, was considered the big talent in the Bach family, and listening to his affecting Lamento Friday night, it wasn’t hard to hear why.  Countertenor Howell sweetly sang the tearful text in tender counterpoint with Mealy’s violin, amid intensely expressive harmonies and deep sighs from viols and continuo.

The last item of the evening was the Song of Praise that Sebastiani composed to follow the Good Friday observance.   Singers Reutter-Harrah and Howell alternated singing the verses in the simple chorale style, and all singers and players joined in on the last verse to bring the performance to a satisfying close.

The program will not be repeated.  The 2014-15 season of Boston Early Music Festival concerts, begins October 11, 2014. bemf.org; 617-661-1812.

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