St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

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