Christmas may have inspired much of the greatest holiday-related popular music, but in the Classical tradition, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (to say nothing of his St. John Passion and Easter Oratorio) points toward the influence of Easter. This piece, a gargantuan thing of beauty, was given three performances on the evenings leading up to Palm Sunday in Dallas, where the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Jaap van Zweden were joined by the Dallas Symphony Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, directed respectively by Joshua Haberman and Cynthia Nott.

From 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn famously revived the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, up until the present, Bach’s music has been at the core of the Western repertoire. The music itself may not have changed in that time, but the way we perform it has. Comparing, for instance, Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of Bach’s works (such as the Chaconne in D minor for solo violin) with Pieter Wispelwey’s interpretations of the cello suites shows how the field of musicology has shaped performance practices and reinvented our concept of Baroque music in general.

The historically-informed performance movement – often employing period instruments, and aiming to achieve performances closer to what might have been the style of that time, in terms of ornamentation, phrasing, and so forth – has had a greater effect on classical music than any other development since the advent of commercial recordings. The result is a “new” Bach being heard even by those already intimate with his music. Certain innovations have been successfully adopted by musicians working with modern instruments and ensembles, and the St. Matthew Passion presented this weekend in Dallas offered a convincing middleground.

In a work lasting nearly two and a half hours, variety is crucial, especially without the acting and staging of an opera. Achieving variety is indeed what Bach does masterfully to hold the work together, and this was key to last evening’s successful performance. Bach used unique instrumental ensembles for the accompaniment to all but one aria in the piece, sometimes employing only strings, other times focusing on two oboes with a background of violins, and at one point highlighting the viola da gamba with a bit of support from the organ. Add to these varied combinations of timbres the possibilities of one or more solo voices, and one or more choirs (up to three, actually – a double choir plus a children’s choir in Part I), and the musical options increase exponentially.

Mr. van Zweden treated each of these instrumental combinations in a way that preserved and prized their differences. In some passages, a dialogue between disparate instruments (flutes and double basses, for example) took precedence; at other times, an obsessive repeated note in the lower strings was brought out, to the point where it became motivic, a running commentary on the vocal line above. The ensembles themselves were impeccably rehearsed. The Dallas Symphony Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas poured forth constantly new moods, colors, and sounds throughout the evening, all with precision and clarity beyond reproach. These vocal ensembles were especially marvelous in Bach’s reflective, elegiac major-key chorales such as “Wer hat dich so geschlagen.”

The soloists were equally wonderful. Save for a few moments in which two of the vocalists strained, you would not have known this was their third consecutive evening performing such a demanding work. The Evangelist, who propels the action forward by narrating the story, all the way from the stirrings of a plot to kill Jesus until his burial, was sung by Johannes Chum. His narrative style was engaging and intricately planned, if for my taste a bit too syllabic and vertical, denying Bach’s brilliant recitatives some of their natural lilting impulse. (This is merely a personal difference; I have enormous admiration for what Mr. Chum brought to this daunting role.) The other male parts – sung by tenor John McVeigh and bass Alastair Miles, with baritone Morgan Smith as Christ – were captivating as well. Mr. Smith conveyed a strong character as Jesus, imbuing his vocal sound with an implacable yet sensitive quality. Mr. Miles showcased a glorious, warm voice and touching sentimentality in “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” Alto Jennifer Johnston’s serene, majestic sound and fine taste were in evidence all evening, particularly in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.” And the malleable, clear tone and sensitive phrasing of soprano Camilla Tilling were highlighted in “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken.”

Hearing music this transcendent is a treat any time of year. But at least this weekend there was no incessant stream of “White Christmas” on the radio to ruin my drive home after the concert.

****1