On Saturday, Philippe Herreweghe conducted the season’s most solemn yet spectacular oratorio concert in New York – a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Scored for two choirs, two orchestras, and soloists, this almost operatic depiction of Christ’s Passion was performed by Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra.

Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra © Richard Termine
Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra
© Richard Termine

Membership in the Collegium has changed since it was formed over forty years ago, though under the baton of Herreweghe, its founder, the ensemble has continued to deliver exceptional live performances and recordings of repertoire ranging from Buxtehude to Brahms. Herreweghe, who was recently awarded the Bach-Medaille by the city of Leipzig, is known particularly for his interpretations of Bach. Many consider his to be the definitive recordings of Bach’s large-scale choral works, including his two recordings of the St. Matthew Passion.

Herreweghe began his recording career at a time when issues related to performance practice of Bach were hotly debated. Particularly in the 1980s, an easy way to start a fight in a room full of Bach specialists was to ask, “How many singers were in Bach’s choir?” Varied interpretations of letters and iconographic evidence led conductors to believe that Bach only used one singer on a part in his large choral works, while others used anywhere from a few to a few dozen per part.

Herreweghe’s two choirs had three singers per part, totaling twenty-four in all, with eight sopranos to supplement. The soloists, save Julian Prégardien (Evangelist), and Michael Nagy (Christ), where taken from each of the two choirs respectively. This practice most likely reflects Bach’s own, and Herreweghe is one of the first conducts to successfully work in this configuration during the early music revival of our own time. While others have adopted this practice, it is successful only when your choristers are talented enough to be featured in the solo parts as well. Few soloists are good choristers, and vice versa. Herreweghe, however, assembled an ensemble of singers to supplement his core ensemble to provide for a thoroughly satisfying evening.

Of particular note were Peter Kooij (bass) and Robin Blaze (countertenor). Both have made significant contributions to our understanding of Bach’s vocal works in their own right. In addition to having collaborated with Herreweghe frequently in the past (Kooji appears on eighteen of Herreweghe’s albums), they have both recorded the entire oeuvre of Bach cantatas with Masaaki Suzuki.

“Mache dich, mein Herze rein,” which Kooij sung, was perhaps one of the most memorable performances all evening. Herreweghe leapt from the podium to be closer to his players in almost boyish excitement. Though Herreweghe’s typical tempo for this aria has been the subject of criticism (notably from musicologist Bernard D. Sherman), I can hardly imagine hearing it any other way. In Saturday’s performance, the orchestra rolled along in steady 12/8 like the sea subsiding after a storm, while Kooji sailed atop its gentle waves. Even the members of the second orchestra, which sat silent, could hardly help but sway in the ocean of sound.

The thirty-five-piece orchestra featured some of today’s most talented performers on period instruments. The double reed players in the first orchestra, Marcel Ponseele and Taka Kitazato, deserve special mention for their sensitive playing on both the oboe and oboe da caccia. Principal oboist Marcel Ponseele, who is one of the most sought-after players on period double-reeds today, was a particular delight to hear.

The young Romina Lischka gave stunning performances of the several pieces with obbligato viola da gamba. Since, as the name suggests, the instrument rests on the legs, gambists often use their bodies more than cellists; both for technical and expressive reasons. Lischka’s highly physical playing was effective yet never affected. She fully exploited the gamba’s wide range of techniques and timbres. In “Geduld, geduld,” which contains two contrasting rhythms in the gamba part, the dotted figure were bitingly articulate. At other moments, the gamba was smooth and sinewy.

The second orchestra’s violinist and concertmistress Anne Katharina Schreiber gave a rousing performance of the obbligato line in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder.”

Herreweghe sought to make the drama of the performance more immediate for his audience by providing supertitles, implicitly strengthening the connection between this Passion and music drama. Still, he did not go as far as some, who have mounted fully-staged dramatic presentations of the Matthew Passion.

By the end of the week, Herreweghe will have conducted the monolithic Matthew Passion six times in six cities across the globe. His return to Alice Tully Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio this December will certainly prove to be one of the musical highlights of the holiday season, and is not to be missed.

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