St. Matthew Passion
Hogwood Directs C.P.E. Bach ClassicBy Jonathan Richmond
St. Matthew Passion by C.P.E. Bach
Harvard University Memorial Church
Harvard University Choir
Murray Forbes Somerville, Choirmaster
Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra
Conducted by Christopher Hogwood
April 26, 8:00 p.m.
The 1789 St. Matthew Passion by C.P.E. Bach, a work of great color and depth, was performed with poise and poignancy by Harvard’s University Choir and Baroque Chamber Orchestra under guest conductor Christopher Hogwood last Friday night.
I found drama and meaning in solo passages through the extraordinary orchestra, whose serene and natural sense of ensemble continually cast light on the work. Alto Suzanne Ehly sang the No. 6 aria with a nice feel for the words, but with uncertainty and incomplete clarity. The strings (modern instruments played with baroque bows), however, were animated, while the period wind instruments, with their characteristic penetrating woodsy sounds, were played adeptly, highlighting the plangent mournfulness of the music. The strings played a central role in the No. 9 bass aria, evoking tragedy and sweetness. Soprano Jean Denton did not project adequately in the No. 19 aria, but there was no end to coloration from the orchestra.
None of the four principal soloists seemed quite comfortable with the rarely performed score. Their singing was competent and occasionally probing, but insufficiently illuminating of the emotional intricacies of the piece, and their diction was often off the mark. The fifth solo part, Pilate, sung by a member of the University Choir, Neil Davidson, was the the most successful dramatically. Davidson’s voice was harshly threatening as Pilate asked Jesus, “Do you not hear how strongly they accuse you?” In a serious tone Pilate asked the crowd to choose either Barrabas or Jesus for release. With firm intent he asked what should be done with Jesus. After the crowd demanded crucifixion, Davidson’s Pilate turned sorrowful as he inquired with remarkable pathos,“But what evil has he done?”
The choir, with its flexible and well-articulated voices, was superb in the intensely solemn “O Jesu Christe, Gottes Sohn” (No. 2) and in the contemplative and beautiful “Ach, ich und meine SÜnden,” which reflects on the consequences of sin. Playing the part of the crowd demanding crucifixion, the choir spelled out the words with bite (aided by unsettling effects produced by the winds), nimbly moving to sighing amazement at the punishment demanded in the choral con stromenti, where reproachful strings accented their sorrow.
The No. 23 chorale, with a theme of the suffering of the innocent, brought yet more intensity, with the chorus lost in mournful expression, and balm somehow produced in the eloquence of the orchestra. The No. 27 chorus, about redemption through suffering, was sung with intimacy: tragic and uplifting at the same time. Rarely can pain be made to feel so sharp and yet so grief-transcendent.
Choirmaster Murray Somerville obviously understands the power of the human voice. He drew the best out of an outstanding group of choristers; he also provided a colorful organ part. Christopher Hogwood brought the whole performance together with a sense of seamlessness, revealing the details while ensuring the logic of the whole.