Bach performed with rare profundity at H+H concert

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Authenticity is an elusive accomplishment when performing that most profound of musical scores, Bach’s St. John Passion. Artists must interpret the text in a way that is moving but not maudlin and hopeful without being saccharine. On Friday night, the Handel & Haydn Society succeeded admirably at the task. Harry Christophers’ perspicacious conducting elicited the type of superior performance one hopes to hear with Bach’s mighty work.

Bach wrote the St. John Passion oratorio during his first year as the church music director of Leipzig, Germany. The première was on April 7, 1724 at St. Nicholas Church for the Good Friday Vespers. The score alternates between recitatives, which tell the Passion story, and arias and chorales that either assume character roles or provide stirring reflections on the text.

The program started with the chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our ruler). With an intuitive understanding of dynamics, Christophers led the chorus to a marvelous crescendo. The emphasis on the words “Herr” and “Verherrlicht” (glorified) was striking: one clearly felt the gravity of the text through the marked enunciation and penetrating singing. Bach’s music tempers praise with foreboding, and establishes the atmosphere for the rest of the oratorio.

One of the most subtle, yet effective conducting decisions was to eliminate pauses between the soloist “actors” as they delivered their lines. The rapid and the reactive exchanges between the singers brought the scenes to life, making the oratorio feel like an opera – albeit without the advantages of costumes, free movement, scenery, lighting, and other stage effects.

Tenor Nicholas Mulroy gave an excellent performance as the Evangelist. He sang particularly well in the recitative “Die char aber” (But the soldiers). The last two lines recount Caiphas’ statement that it was expedient for one man to die for all the people. By placing a forceful accent on Caiphas’ words, Mulroy drew the audience’s attention to the significance of their palimpsest allusion. He also showed much skill in “Als er aber solches redete” (As he spoke in this way), dramatically describing the action as the chief priest’s servant strikes Jesus with his hand.

Bass-baritone Matthew Brook sang the role of Jesus with vivid animation and technical expertise. In the aria “Ich habe frei” (I have spoken openly), Brook interpreted the text with depth and authority. He showed similar acumen with his majestic performance in “Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt” (My kingdom is not of this world). In “Du hättest keine Macht über mich” (You would have no power over me), Brook’s rich vocal timbre resonated splendidly as he sang through the ‘m’ of the word “darum” (therefore). He gave memorable performances throughout the evening.

Contralto Emily Marvosh is a perennially graceful presence on stage, and Friday night she sang the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins) with convincing delivery and emotion. The crisp enunciation and vivacity she exhibited in all her arias gave the audience a deeper appreciation of the text.

Soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad gave an outstanding performance in the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (I follow you likewise). She sang with agility and skillful projection, revealing an arrestingly attractive voice.  Tengblad also offered a superlative rendition of “Zerfließe, mein Herze” (Dissolve, my heart), mirroring the fluctuation of the music, which resembles sobs, and providing lovely intonation on the word “Ehren” (Almighty).

Christophers’ conducting was superb throughout the oratorio. In the chorale “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” (Who has struck you in this way), he achieved a perfect unison between the chorus and orchestra. He was helped by the superior level of singing among choral members. One of his most dexterous displays was the presentation of the words “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?” (Aren’t you one of his disciples?), which sounded just like murmuring.

Praise is also due to the solo instrumentalists, such as the oboe, cellist, and viola de gamba musicians who accompanied the vocal soloists. Often echoing the same melodic lines as the singers, their skill and interpretation were first-rate.

In Part II, Bach’s masterful scoring of “Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter” (If this man were not a criminal) mimics the agitation of the text, as the choir takes on the role of the indignant crowd responding to Pilate. Baritone Woodrow Bynum gave a splendid performance as Pilate. The frenzy reached a dramatic peak as the chorus sang “Kreuzige, Kreuzige!” (Crucify him, crucify him!).

The Bass aria-Chorus “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tormented souls) was the finest moment in the concert. Christophers led the brilliant exchange between the bass and the chorus, adding just the right amount of choral interjection to the solo performance. The dynamic conducting and animated singing felt more like a fully-staged production than a staid oratorio.

In the penultimate, breathtaking chorus “Ruht wohl” (Rest in peace), Christophers depicted the scene with serene solemnity. The choir responded in kind, as did the period orchestra. The audience was transfixed during the final chorale, as the full power of the ensemble resonated throughout the hall. There was nothing artificial about their interpretation, and the transcendent performance was rewarded with a more substantial ovation than the usual evanescent variety.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].