In the thirteen years that Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been music director of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, he has always sought to extend the musical capacities and artistic ambitions of the ensemble. He continues his artistic mission by kicking off the orchestra’s 2014-2015 season with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 10. On Easter Saturday he demonstrated once more that he is unabashed and unafraid in his choice of repertoire by programming J.S. Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion. Almost inevitably, the performance could be seen as proving that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. There are several reasons for this – above all, the epic scale of the work. Not only does the oratorio last more than three hours, it requires double orchestras and choruses as well as a handful of truly accomplished soloists.

Lawrence Wiliford © Lawrence Wiliford
Lawrence Wiliford
© Lawrence Wiliford

The St Matthew Passion is one of only two of the four or five Passions that Bach composed that has survived. Though it has a structure that resembles the Lutheran cantatas he wrote throughout his life, Bach’s St Matthew Passion has a complexity and a density rarely, if ever, encountered in the Baroque era. It contains some 30 choral selections and 15 solo arias, each preceded and accompanied by recitatives or ariosos. Yet in its retelling of the story of Christ’s passion, with interventions by such characters as Pontius Pilate and even Jesus himself, the major ‘character’ is the narrator, the Evangelist.

In an all-Canadian cast of soloists, l’Orchestre Métropolitain was fortunate to have entrusted the Evangelist to tenor, Lawrence Wiliford. Though the Evangelist has no formal arias, he is the narrative glue that keeps the oratorio not only intact but lucid. Wiliford was a constant source of wonder. His voice is not an instrument of intrinsic beauty but is an interpretative tool of remarkable flexibility. Vocally, he coped with the fiendishly difficult and high-lying tessitura with consummate skill. He deployed a palette of colours, a range of dynamic variation and a linguistic and verbal clarity rarely encountered. The recitative “Da speieten sie in sein Angesicht” (“Then did they spit on his face”) for example, was an object lesson in the use of an expressive palette. He could be lyrical and moving (“Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden”), yet he could also be completely at one with Nézet-Séguin’s extremely dramatic and theatrical reading of the work (in the best sense of the word especially in a time of staged Passions and Messiahs).

Nézet-Séguin was the other major architect in the convincing design and realization of this performance. Each of his interpretations reveals a level of physical implication, conviction and musical energy that demand respect and command admiration. Here there was a spiritual fervour, an almost devotional strength, that was communicated not only to his audience but to each of his principles. His was the guiding light that illuminated each facet and parcel of this performance. It was he who coaxed a performance of admirable cohesion and homogeneity from the massed chorus (comprised of the Orchestre Metropolitain’s own chorus and the English-Montreal School Board Chorale). If the taxing tessitura occasionally pushed them to their limits, they were never less than commendable and convincing. The orchestra itself was somewhat less distinguished. Questions and issues of ensemble accuracy, balance and unity occasionally raised their heads (especially with regard to the continuo) but the orchestra never flagged in their enthusiasm and commitment to the work or their conductor.

The same inconsistencies characterized the work of the invited soloists of which the bass-baritone Philippe Sly was particularly impressive. The eloquence of his German and the interpretative power of his recitatives as Pilate, were only matched by the range of colour, dynamic control and effortless legato demonstrated in the arias “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” (“Give me back my Master, Jesus”) and “Mache dich mein Herze, rein” (“Make yourself pure”). Baritone Alexander Dobson brought great dramatic presence, gravelly and grainy tone, and a veiled vocal production to the ‘role’ of Jesus, whereas tenor Isaiah Bell brought musical elegance and intelligence, an attractive timbre but also ungainly vocal production and occasionally wayward intonation to his arias.

The ladies were also uneven. Bach’s low-lying alto register does not ideally suit mezzo-soprano Julie Bouliane, but after the interval she did offer musically impeccable and warmly lyrical readings of the famous arias “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy”) and “Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen” (“If the tears on my face”). It would be uncharitable to criticize soprano Suzie LeBlanc too severely as she was replacing an ailing colleague, but her singing was so opaque as to make the glorious aria “Blute nur, du liebes Herz” (“Bleed on, dear Heart”) almost ineffectual. Yet ultimately, as Nézet-Séguin again showed us, the spirit of a performance can often reaffirm the greatness of any given masterpiece.

***11