Probably no other work in the repertoire has such mystical status as Bach's Matthew Passion. Phrases like "The Greatest Work in the Western Canon", trip glibly off the tongue while failing to illuminate its greatness or acknowledge its strangeness. It is the sacred cow of sacred cows. It is of course an extraordinary piece: the beauty of the arias, with their endlessly inventive Arietta-recit introductions laden with effects and affekt not to mention the amazing musical characterisation of Jesus, the feeling that we are constantly dipping into real life scenes between the Evangelist's explanations, the choral interjections, and everywhere the harmony surprising no matter how many times one has heard it. One could go on.
But it will not do to treat this work as a museum piece, so highly revered and so much greater than us that we must expurgate any sense of personality or individuality in our interpretation: it cannot survive this treatment. It is not so great a work that its 3 hour stretch won't dissolve into tedium if the utmost commitment and intensity isn't felt by everyone. And all too often, the experience of sitting through a performance is just this, one of tedium punctuated by moments of beauty. Not the fault of the music! In a good performance the music rends your heart, tears at your soul and one experiences the Mystery of Easter rendered as a deeply human experience even while it maintains its spiritual grandeur. A miracle, even for those of us who do not believe in miracles.
What we got here from conductor Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra was the kind of historically informed performance that strips the music of phrasing, sensuousness, dynamics and rhythmic charge, ostensibly because these are not the correct sensibilities for baroque church music. The lack of dynamics or articulations in the printed score does not mean that they aren't implied: the score contains all the clues. Here the orchestral music just washed by in an endless stream of mezzo piano to mezzo forte, lacking any sense of forward momentum or phrasing. The "thunder and lighting" chorus made shockingly little impact. As another example, despite lovely solo violin playing from Adrian Butterfield and singing from Emily Renard, the aria "Erbarme Dich" also failed to make its full impact because the harmonic tensions of the orchestral strings were not given enough body to let them speak. The Choir of St. George's at least were excellent, well balanced, powerful despite relatively modest size, with the small solos well taken by all.
Evangelists are almost a vocal fach unto themselves; we now expect the clearest, sweetest lyric tenor, with the ability to be convincingly intense where the text requires it; someone who can negotiate the high tessitura and flexibility the music demands without us ever being aware of its difficulties; a tenor with a delivery that is direct whilst also maintaining an air of objectivity. Needless to say this is quite a rare combination, and great evangelists are hard to come by. Nathan Vale's voice was lovely in the more hushed sections of his animated delivery, with lots of nicely detailed pointing of the text, but the higher and louder he sang, the more uncomfortable his very tight vibrato got. George Humphrey's Christ was appropriately solemn and commanding, and he sang with a compelling calm and reserve.
Anna Devin stepped in at the last moment to replace an ill Ida Falk Winland. She has just the kind of voice that makes the soprano arias in this piece an achingly, almost painful emotional experience - sweet and pure, but very sad, the sinuous vocal lines searing and white hot in their smooth intensity. Some of the faster sections seemed more approximate, but she was largely the most involving of the soloists because she wasn't afraid to use the full palette of vocal expression to her arias. Her pianissimi were particularly affecting.
Mezzo-soprano Emily Renard has a lovely voice and sang very well, but seemed out of her comfort zone in the low tessitura of her arias which call for the solidity of a lower mezzo or even a true alto. Bass Edward Grint has an impressively large voice, but it took until his final aria for him to coax out some of the true expressive potential of the music.
A frustrating performance, as it was not devoid of beauty, but one wished everywhere for more personality and sense of purpose: that this really was the greatest story ever told.