Joshua Rifkin’s theory that Bach had no ‘choir’ in the modern sense may have gradually inched its way towards acceptance, but for all the heated discussion his research has generated, one-per-part Passions are rarer than one might suppose. Austrian conductor and choral director Martin Haselböck is absolutely convinced of the theory’s authenticity and promised in an excitedly worded programme note that this performance would give us a St Matthew Passion as Bach conceived it in scale and interpretation.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion, from the first page of autograph score
Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion, from the first page of autograph score

Having brushed up briefly on the one-per-part literature before this concert, I was reminded that Rifkin offers a marginally more convincing reading of documentary materials than his critics but doesn’t settle the matter, and his findings – at least as he stated them during the 1980s – are directed towards the idea that contemporary performance should be principally informed by the representation of tradition he and others have constructed from the available sources. But the business of reconstruction, if that is even desirable, is chimerical (to use a word beloved by historically-informed performance’s fiercest critic, Richard Taruskin). Leaving aside the open question of whether Bach intended to set a precedent with the limited numbers available to him, all that which cannot be documented is a matter of speculation, however well-informed, and this was no less true of this performance than it is of other Matthew Passions. Haselböck’s intriguing mention of interpretation, a term loaded with 19th-century baggage, is the most problematic non-physical parameter.

In any case, and certainly no great disappointment to those of us who would prefer a musically convincing to a historically-informed Passion, the kind of functional direction widely assumed to have been Bach’s practice bore little resemblance to Haselböck’s conducting style. At times his shaping of voice-leading outdid unapologetically interventionist accounts in the self-expression stakes, and ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter’ seemed downright slow compared to the harried pulsing typical of many an ‘authentic’ performance. Haselböck wasn’t always so accommodating in his tempi choices, and might have given the oboists more of a sporting chance in ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ and ‘Mache dich, mein Herze rein’, but his direction overall was concerned more with the crafting of line than a race to the finish line. Vibrato was more or less constant throughout.

The reduced vocal forces started on an unsteady footing, with ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter’ lacking in impact and an audible cantus firmus, but balance rapidly improved and there was, quite unexpectedly, something close to a choral sound in a number of chorales, most pronounced in ‘O Mensch, bewein’. Recitatives and arias were of a decent standard with the two alto soloists (Ida Aldrian and Carlos Mena) particularly well-matched; both had finely concentrated tone and good control. Easily the best of the soloists, however, was Tilman Lichdi, whose remarkable Evangelist compares with the finest on disc. His flexible tenor is perfectly suited to the role and delivery, while expressive and dramatic in all the right places, isn’t preoccupied with squeezing every syllable for narrative import; there were many strikingly effective moments when he gave the text a matter-of-fact gloss, leaving us to reckon with the significance of the words in an astute balancing of head and heart. With effortless singing rich in character and artistry, Lichdi’s is an Evangelist worth travelling some distance to hear.