Under the dynamic German choir director Florian Helgath, La Scintilla, the Zürcher Sing-Akademie and a handful of polished soloists performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s emotive St Matthew Passion in Lucerne. The work has long stood among the most stunning of all choral works in music history. Written as a sacred oratorio in 1727 for solo voices, double choirs and double orchestras, with a libretto by Christian Friederich Henrici (“Picander”), Bach’s Matthew Passion expounds upon the last hours Christ’s earthy life, crucifixion and death on the Cross, in a sonorous balance of narrative recitative, solo arias and simple yet majestic chorales.

Florian Helgath conducts the Zürcher Sing-Akademie and La Scintilla
© Zürcher Sing-Akademie

The biblical text is familiar: betrayed by his disciple Judas, and even denied by his closest friend, Peter, Jesus suffers an agonising and public death in a way that forces his onlookers – and ultimately, us as listeners – to confront our own human weaknesses and inherent failures. While the crowd is guilty for its compliance in Christ’s death, it is – by the end of the work – aware of Christ’s majesty, and is, indeed, both humbled and enlightened by it. As listeners, if we’re lucky, we come to the same sensation.

La Scintilla deserves the highest accolades. Originally spurred by the legendary Monteverdi cycle that Nikolaus Harnoncourt pioneered at the Zurich Opera House in the late 1970s, the independent ensemble of first-rate musicians has continued to cultivate the art of historical performance practice from within the ranks of their various posts in the Zurich house orchestra.

Florian Helgath
© Zürcher Sing-Akademie

Here in Lucerne, the play of resonant voices and sonorous instruments was a powerful combination from the start. The huge scope of human drama is at play: betrayal and remorse, reconciliation and compassion, fear and love. Both scope and tension are highly demanding, not least for any listeners, who are as drawn in by the majesty of the music as to almost become complicit. Indeed, when Jesus, sang “Truly I say to you, one of you shall betray me!” those of us attending had to pretty much squirm in our seats.

As Christ, tall bass Milan Siljanov was convincing. His delivery was big enough for two halls, and its brilliant resonance shook those of us in the spare (Covid-restricted) audience to the bone. His very presence and resonant bass were exemplary. As the Evangelist, tenor Jan Petryka had the far greater number of lines, and served both as interlocutor and storyteller in the role. While he carried the lion’s share of the narrative, he clearly conceded centre stage to Siljanov's Christ.

Jan Petryka
© Zürcher Sing-Akademie

Hannah Morrison and Anke Vondung sang the most modest roles of the four soloists, both of them somewhat handicapped, it seemed, by the acoustic demands of such a large hall, particularly when so few seats were filled. Not so for Konstantin Wolff, who sang the treacherous Pilate, his tremendous voice coming down like a hammer on one’s conscience.

The accompanying vocalists of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie were in unwavering top form. In this marathon performance, their work maintained precision and nuance throughout. The simplest refrain among their first and their last melodies, carried a sweetness and resonance that was unprecedented. Under Helgath’s direction, they readily assumed their roles that ranged from acidic accusers – as if they themselves stood on Golgotha among the heated crowd – to compassionate devotees of the dead Christ by the end. One might say that given the Covid restrictions and the tensions we’re all facing in the pandemic's grip, that the portrayal of Christ’s lessons and faith made this fine concert both an epiphany and a comfort.

This concert will be broadcast on Idagio at 15:00 CET on 2nd April 2021