When Sir John Eliot Gardiner toured Europe in the spring of 2015 with Bach’s B minor Mass − Lucerne among the venues of that acclaimed performance − the Süddeutsche Zeitung cited him as the uncontended “number one among Bach conductors”. His continuity, command of transitions, and the freshness he infused into the work were all given accolades. Then as now, Gardiner’s intention is to make “Baroque music something that has relevance for the here and now”, and he proved that point again nicely during Lucerne’s annual “Zu Ostern” (Easter) festival.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sheila Rock | Decca
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sheila Rock | Decca

Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion tells the story of Christ’s suffering on his way to − and death on − the Cross. First performed on Good Friday 1727 in Leipzig, the oratorio features two four-part choirs and their associated orchestras, whose singers and players also “cross” in narrative and musical dialogue. The biblical texts − from St Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27 − are supplemented by freely composed verse by Bach’s favourite poet, Picander. The more contemplative arias portray the inner suffering of onlookers and witnesses to Jesus’ story; the agony of suffering, guilt, deceit and compassion being brilliantly underscored by no fewer than 14 substantive choral interludes.

Now touring again, Sir John seems wholly at ease among his musicians. While the conductor’s score surely includes the many stage directions, all the singers perform without notes, and have committed this lengthy work entirely to memory. At the wonderful KKL hall, Gardiner’s cues were clear and fully embracing; his large and fluid hands flagged everything from tempi adjustments to the singer’s placement on the stage. There was never a single straggler, a chorus member who rose too soon or too late. The timing of the singers' movements, in fact, was as tight as any I’ve seen among choirs. That the soloists came downstage to within a few feet of the conductor for their arias was a staging device that made each one’s words and music more immediate and accessible.

The Evangelist’s narration of the story is the thread that sustains us, a recitative accompanied by the basso continuo alone. In that demanding role, the British tenor Mark Padmore gave a stellar performance. His delivery was as clear as a bell, every word carefully crafted, his presence both humble and sovereign. He shared the story of the Passion as if we were at once intimate friend and curious neighbour; repeatedly making eye contact with members of the audience, injecting a nerve of excitement, fear of danger, and palpable awe. He often sang with the thumb of one hand on his opposite wrist as if to keep a pulse on all the events transpiring. I can’t imagine a finer Evangelist.

As Jesus, German Stephan Loges had a mellow and bronzy-toned bass that was as secure as it was compassionate. In the score, Christ acknowledges from the start that his Word will be ministered throughout the world only after his death, and as he foreshadowed that, Loges sang in his native German with an emotive heft that would make a brave man cry. His very last words, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) resounded without the strings that underscored all his other lines, and that continuo alone made his “singular” fate appeal that much more dramatic.

The choir’s command of the score and gorgeous harmonies as a group were entirely flawless. While some of the solo performances were somewhat uneven, British baritone Jonathan Sells shone: first cast as Judas, then for the aria no. 65, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”; his enunciation was perfect, and every note carried to the farthest reaches of the hall. Alex Ashworth’s gripping bass was also commendable, as were the orchestra’s two supremely animated and passionate oboes da caccia that “sang” accompaniment to the tenor recitative, “O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz” (O pain! Here trembles the tormented heart). Finally, members of the Lucerne Boys’ Choir joined the larger choirs in launching and concluding the three-hour oratorio, showing themselves a disciplined and well appointed group.

The Bach mass inspired emotions that ranged from the depths of despair and fear of the brutal crowd and to the profound beauty and “bliss” of the melodic chorales. For me, the Baroque cello that took centre stage in the second half was also an achievement of the first order. With a voice like a steady companion, it showed a conviction fitting for this mass and paraphrased here after Deuteronomy 4:29: “He who seeks the Lord has already found Him”.