Christophers leads H&H in mesmerizing account of “St. Matthew Passion”

March 28, 2015 at 12:39 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Harry Christophers led H&H in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Friday night at Symphony Hall. File photo: Stu Rosner

The Handel and Haydn Society celebrated its bicentennial this week, and, to mark the occasion, the society hosted a series of high-profile events.

H&H capped off the week of celebrations at Symphony Hall Friday night when Harry Christophers led a vivid and beautiful performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Bach’s passion settings are like operas in that they present the crucifixion and death of Christ through clear-cut characters and rich, affecting music. Those elements are especially evident in the St. Matthew Passion, the most epic of Bach’s sacred works.

Christophers and company brought Bach’s mesmerizing score to life, the H&H chorus and period instrument orchestra making the work’s earthy drama palpable and thoroughly enticing. There may be no more effective and colorful conductor for this repertoire than Christophers, and throughout this churning and complex score he showed a fine command for shaping the musical line.

The choruses were especially poignant in telling the Lenten story. The dry, crisp phrases of “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” and plump tones of “Ich bins, ich sollte büßen” sounded with an assured personal conviction that is clearly conveyed in the text. The lines of “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken” sounded with fiery intensity and earth-shaking power. The phrases of the opening “Kommt, ihr Töchter” crested and broke in soft waves. Through it all, the chorus, aided by the young singers of the H&H vocal arts program, sang with spring water clarity and resplendent ensemble blend.

The performance also featured a stellar cast of soloists.

Tenor Joshua Ellicott, returning to H&H after his powerful performance in the title role of last season’s Samson, brought a bell-toned clarity to the role of the Evangelist. His phrasing of the part’s expressive and wide-ranging recitatives made for a bold and moving narration of the Christian story.

The role of Jesus in St. Matthew Passion is a strong one, and baritone Roderick Williams sang the part with a smooth, chocolaty voice that had just the right touch of defiance and conviction. His singing of “Der mit der Hand mit mir,” where Christ claims that it is better for a man never to have been born than to betray him, was dark and powerful in tone.

Soprano Joélle Harvey is a regular for H&H productions and her smooth lyrical soprano is well suited to the winding melodies that lace Bach’s score. Her singing of the aria “Ich will dir ein Herze schenen” was buoyant and captured the religious fervor of a Christian giving her heart to Christ.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany sang a dark and rich “Du lieber Heiland du” and she brought a sense of palpable sorrow to “Buß und Reu,” with a duo of flutes adding elegant accompaniment.

Matthew Long sang with a clear, penetrating tenor voice that caught the hellfire and brimstone of “O Schmerz!” His ensuing aria, “Ich will bei meinen Jesu wachen,” was just the opposite, soft and delicate, with the orchestra supplying a gentle lilting accompaniment.

Sumner Thompson brought his rosy, clarion bass voice to the role of Pilate and to his recitatives and arias. Most expressive was his prayerful rendition of “Am Abend,” a gentle song that tells of the new peace with God brought on by the crucifixion.

To support the singers, Christophers wove a soft bed of orchestral accompaniment, and the musicians played with rapt attention to the conductor’s every move.

The performance also featured fine solo playing from a number of musicians. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky spun a silvery line to mesh with Stéphany’s singing in “Erbarme dich.” Violinist Christina Day Martinson’s solo in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” was less successful, the difficult, leaping melody of her part frequently sliding out of tune. Stephen Hammer’s svelte oboe playing was well deployed in several places, and Laura Jeppesen supplied a delicate viola da gamba solo to accompany Thompson in “Komm, süßes Kreuz.” The continuo, played by cellist Guy Fishman and organist Ian Watson, provided a sturdy musical frame.

The St. Matthew Passion will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Christophers leads H&H in mesmerizing account of “St. Matthew Passion””

  1. Posted Mar 30, 2015 at 5:52 pm by John

    I feel I must comment on Symphony Hall as a venue for the H&H, as well as the performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Sitting in the 2nd balcony through the first half, the sound was weak, and the fast tempi chosen by Christophers for the while perfect for Handel was inappropriate for this sombre work. As one reviewer described it as “light-footed”; it seemed more like a dance than a passion play. I felt it should have been dark, brooding, a foretelling of the upcoming tragedy.

    Not having remembered to bring a flashlight, I couldn’t read the libretto, so was unable to appreciate the Evangelist recits. Fortunately I was able to move to a front orchestra seat just by the woodwinds. Stage lighting enabled me to read the libretto, and the sound was completely different. I could appreciate the timbre of the baroque flutes, the wonderful complex sound of the oboe da’caccia, and hear the viola di’gamba (tho’ barely), all beautifully played.

    While I understand H&H wanting a venue to accommodate a large audience, I am afraid that many would not enjoy the experience. I would wish that H&H would choose Jordan Hall or Sanders Theater as their venue. In Symphony Hall, this work should be performed with modern instruments and a somewhat larger orchestra.

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