In his biography of Richard Wagner, Michael Tanner writes that Tristan und Isolde is one of two great masterpieces that have the musical brilliance, the intellectual strength and the emotional power to convert you to its philosophical cause. The other, naturally, is the St Matthew Passion.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann © Monika Rittershaus
Hanno Müller-Brachmann
© Monika Rittershaus

From a Christian standpoint, and to do justice to this highest plane of Bach’s writing, a passion must convert, or at least try to. We must feel its pains, its joys, and its message. The Evangelist must play his role just as a preacher does, explaining and living the Word whilst he narrates it. The turba choruses, crisp but echoing down the centuries, must imply our guilt, so that we can begin to fathom our salvation.

These are impossible standards, of course, but they are necessary not only to the faith behind the passion but also on a more mundane, purely musical level. Few performances have ever met them, and few ever will. (On record, perhaps only Willem Mengelberg and Otto Klemperer have done so.) This Maundy Thursday performance from the Orchestra of St Luke’s, with Iván Fischer and Hanno Müller-Brachmann at its centre, came pretty close.

The Matthew is more contemplative and less dramatic than its little brother, the St John Passion. But Iván Fischer set this Matthew up as dramatic from the very start. He alone stood in the middle of the stage, with both orchestras and choirs quite far away. He lived the performance’s every line, singing and dancing along, bearing witness at the work’s heart. Singers emerged around him, though instrumental soloists remained seated, and their movements were choreographed with a light touch that nonetheless considerably heightened the performance’s atmosphere.

Musically, Fischer’s Matthew was a hybrid, combining a single period practice – strings playing without vibrato – with a broad, spacious architecture that never stinted on details and looked graciously back to tradition. By modern standards tempi tended to be slow and yet full of verve. Throughout, Fischer’s pacing was faultless, usually trusting in the shape and depth of Bach’s writing to do justice to the emotions behind it, rather than pulling it around. Brief breaks were taken when they were implied in the text, but otherwise Fischer drove the drama forwards, urging his continuo players in particular to find different sounds for recitatives, attacking with proto-modernist edge or sighing gently. He implored ever greater contrasts, like in the stabbing staccato winds that surrounded Steven Caldicott Wilson’s lyric tenor in the recitative before “Geduld!” (“My Jesus remains silent, still in the face of false lies”). His work with the chorus, Kent Tritle’s excellent but at times underpowered Musica Sacra, was particularly fine, drawing lucid textures but vehemence and brutality when necessary. Interventions came solely at the service of the music, while individual moments served the whole. This was an interpretation that understood the importance of suffering and conversion, and the payoffs both bring.

The evening revolved, though, around bass Hanno Müller-Brachmann. For whatever reason – and it was presumably not budgetary, given the number of other competent basses on stage – Müller-Brachmann took on an extraordinary number of roles in this performance, singing all but his great and solitary aria (“Mache dich, mein Herze rein”) from a pedestal at our Evangelist’s right shoulder in the middle of the stage. Not only did Müller-Brachmann sing Jesus, but Judas, Peter, a Priest, the High Priest, and finally Pontius Pilate. He found a different style of singing for each too, whether in his familiarly cavernous Jesus, or the distracted malevolence of Judas, or the resignation of Pilate. The implication, because of his noble but far from distant singing as Jesus, was of the psychologized humanity of Christ – interrogating and rescuing himself – but also his presence and ubiquity. It was impossible not to be convinced when Müller-Brachmann finally came to that imploring, catechetical line in “Mache dich”: “World, go forth, let Jesus in!”

Our other soloists were less successful, though barely so. John Tessier began unconvincingly as the Evangelist, but his performance built into something rather special, particularly after his “Ich will bein meinem Jesu wachen”, and he sang with grace, humility, and power. Barbara Kozelj was an affecting mezzo, opening the second half with an unusually cutting cry of “Ach!” Likewise Dominique Labelle sang movingly, and her crucial “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” – when we learn why Christ must die at the crowd’s hands – was movingly heartfelt. Of the smaller roles, both Mischa Bouvier and Silvie Jensen struggled to anunciate and project in such a large space, while Steven Caldicott Wilson sang with such ringing clarity that one looked forward to him singing his own Evangelist.

The Orchestra of St Luke’s were hampered slightly by Fischer’s decision to restrain vibrato, and some of the tutti playing was surprisingly scrappy, but as soloists they shone, particularly the two principal violinists. Fischer’s vision, however, meant that slipups mattered not a jot: this was as fine a passion as one would hear outside Leipzig this Easter. It did not quite convert, but it tried.