St Matthew Passion

St Matthew Passion, BWV244

Evangelist – Rufus Müller
Christus – Peter Harvey

Elizabeth Weisberg & Angela Kazimierczuk (soprano), Alexandra Gibson & Patricia Hammond (altos), Paul Bradley (tenor) & Michael Burke (bass)

Choir of the Enlightenment

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

There were several oddities about the promotion and presentation of this performance. Firstly, there was no programme merely a list of principals (although I now understand that this was due to production difficulties). Initially the idea was that audience members would volunteer to join in the chorales – and be rehearsed by Iván Fischer beforehand. In the event, all the audience was encouraged to sing – in English, whilst the remainder of the work was sung in German. Most puzzling was the designation “The People’s Passion” in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s promotional booklet and in bigger typeset than anything else on the information sheet.

I have always thought that this was Bach’s setting of the Passion according to St Matthew and that the central figure was Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps I’ve missed something. In any event, the music is what matters and Bach’s masterpiece rarely fails to move – whatever the circumstances. Otto Klemperer’s EMI recording clocks in at around three-and-three-quarter-hours. Fischer had the work done and dusted in just over two-and-a-half. And whilst speeds and timings aren’t everything, there were occasions in Fischer’s reading which verged dangerously on the perfunctory.

Indeed, some of the music sounded inappropriately ‘jolly’. The passage at the Last Supper where Christ institutes the rite of Holy Communion and speaks of His body and blood being a sacrifice was positively jaunty. It would be an understatement to say how inapposite this is, both as regards the text and Bach’s musical response to it. Whilst much is made nowadays of the influence of the dance on Bach’s music, this surely does not mean that anything in triple time has to skip along daintily. I felt that the scene was not being set for reflection upon events and ideas of monumental profundity. The penultimate chorus of ‘Part One’ with its references to thunder and lightning felt like tripping through a light shower and dramatic choral interjections were too often delivered in too gentle a fashion.

Nevertheless, Fischer clearly loves this work and, in some respects, this was rather a ‘romantic’ reading, with phrasing sculpted in an affectionate way – not always altogether avoiding a sense of the mannered. Articulation, again, was often fussily attended to, sometimes at the expense of a steady, regular pulse. The orchestra provided secure playing, with some fine obbligatos, though I found that these sometimes drew attention to themselves at the expense of the solo vocal lines. Having some of the instrumentalists standing probably didn’t help. In fact, there was quite a bit of movement around the stage with players re-locating themselves and solo singers coming forward from the choir which was placed on either side of the platform. I thought it singularly inappropriate to have the singers move back to their places during concluding orchestral passages.

The absence of a detailed list of personnel makes it difficult to identify the performers accurately, but assuming the alto from Chorus I was Alexandra Gibson, she had an attractive, bright voice almost soprano-like in timbre. Conversely, the soprano from Chorus II (Angela Kazimierczuk?) had an alto-ish tinge. The best of these soloists was the other soprano who I take to have been Elizabeth Weisberg. The men were less distinguished, with Paul Bradley too hectoring in his aria in ‘Part Two’ (‘Geduld, Geduld!’) – though there was effective viola da gamba playing – and Michael Burke struggled somewhat in the lower register. Peter Harvey was a youngish-sounding Christus. He also sang a couple of the bass arias.

The outstanding contributor to the evening, however, was Rufus Müller. He was thoroughly convincing. Singing (as did Harvey) without music, he narrated the story in a quite dramatic manner. Sometimes he would relate events in conspiratorial fashion to the audience, at others he would be visibly – and audibly – caught up in the unfolding tragedy. It was, in the right sense of the term, an ‘operatic’ performance, aided and abetted by Fischer admirably moving swiftly on from one number to the next, often pointing up startling contrasts between movements. The chorus sang well, and the antiphonal passages were especially effective.

And the audience did join in the chorales – as Bach would have expected his congregation to do – so one did have the feeling of being ‘caught up’ in the proceedings. I hope the photocopies of the music for provided for the chorales were legal ones.

I was gratified to have experienced Rufus Müller’s Evangelist, but, overall, felt this was rather too lightweight an approach to Bach’s ‘Passion’ for it to have made its fullest impact.

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