The Netherlands is so deeply enamoured of Bach's St Matthew Passion that throughout March and April a different performance of it can be heard almost every evening. In the Concertgebouw alone, there are seven performances of the Matthew Passion in the coming week, and the St John Passion as well. Many stellar ensembles, each sharing their own vision of Bach's masterwork in Amsterdam this April, bring world class performers to the city's concert halls, but of all of them this was the Passion I most wanted to hear this Eastertide, and I was not disappointed.
Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music brought an unapologetically lush and dramatic performance to the Concertgebouw stage on Thursday night. The version performed here was the first version of 11 April 1727, originally performed in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, and while the larger part of the oratorio remains the same as in later versions, there are a few differences that make this version uniquely interesting.
The first chorus opened at an unusually swift pace, with lyrical, flowing phrasing, both urgent and elegant. The choir of 20 singers – fine singers in their own rights, as many of them showed, stepping out of the choir to take the smaller solos – set the tone for the concert with an uninhibitedly rich collective sound. The flautists soon showed their quality in this movement, with a perfectly smooth tone floating over the warmth of the strings.
Honours are evenly divided among the outstanding vocal soloists: even so James Gilchrist's Evangelist was breathtaking. Egarr has described him previously as “a consummate storyteller”: his Evangelist does not stand apart from the action, a dispassionate commentator, but is personally invested in the events as they unfold. Gilchrist brought a passionate directness, and rich nuance and variety to his storytelling, with vocal flexibility that could change with lightning swiftness from intensely sweet pianissimo high notes to sudden moments of great force and thrilling dramatic declamation. I especially appreciated his eerily silky tone the first time he named “Judas Iscarioth”, and his stark stillness and purity of tone on “dass sie ihn kreuzigten” (“they crucified Him”) was chilling.
Matthew Rose's Christus was simply immense. His luscious, noble cantabile gave Christus rich emotional and dramatic heft. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, whose voice has a beautiful liquid gleam, delivered her aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen” magnificently, poised and stately, yet suffused with emotional immediacy. “Erbarme dich” was profoundly moving, with the lute adding its peculiar softness to the texture and the violin solo played with subtlety and feeling by Rodolfo Richter. Soprano Elizabeth Watts effortlessly refined her glowing fullness of tone to a slender, sinuous thread in the aria “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!”, in which the twisting melodies of the second part were different from the version with which most concert-goers are familiar. “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” had some soaring tender moments, and graceful ornamentation from the oboes d'amore.
Tenor Thomas Hobbs showed great sensitivity and flexibility, singing with lovely lightness of touch in “Geduld, Geduld!”, with vital, physical playing from Tomasz Pokrzywinski on cello and a flowing continuo realization from Richard Egarr at the harpsichord. The bass recitative and aria “Ja! freilich will in uns... Komm, süßes Kreuz” were performed with lute, rather than viola da gamba, as specified in later versions. Under lutenist William Carter's dexterous hands, the dotted rhythms were remarkably jazzy. Baritone Christopher Maltman sang softly and sensitively in order to let the lute take the fore: he also impressed in the aria “Gerne will ich mich bequemen”, with lovely dynamic flexibility, accompanied by warm and creamy violins.
The orchestra as a whole was outstanding, the relatively small size of the ensemble making for transparent textures and free communication between the instrumentalists. Egarr’s direction gave space for spontaneity and individual expression within the ensemble and his tempi were often faster than commonly performed, with much use of rubato. The string sections, led by Pavlo Besnoziuk and Rodolfo Richter, gave their all with vital, spacious playing, especially shining in such moments as the bass aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!” where the violins played in duet with light, speech-like articulation. There is a calculated risk when the individuals within a large group play with such freedom: it paid off in terms of the freshness and immediacy made possible by this approach. There were occasional moments of imprecision, always swiftly caught and corrected by the constant flow of communication within the ensemble. The choir sang with unfeigned warmth, and rich, full voices. Their account of Bach’s chorales was committed and tender, while they also showed biting precision and energy in the more dramatic choruses. There was nothing cold or academic about this interpretation – playing and singing at their very best, the Academy of Ancient Music gave us a humane, generous vision of this most justly beloved of works.
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