Boston — The trial, degradation and crucifixion of Jesus seems like an unlikely subject for the happy occasion of a bicentennial birthday concert. Nevertheless, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, fondly known and H&H, did exactly that with a magnificent performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on March 27. The proximity to Holy Week may have had something to do with both the choice and the selling out Symphony Hall. The dour subject matter notwithstanding, the celebratory mood of the occasion added an unmistakable festive overlay to the retelling of such somber events.
Bach’s three hours of complex music is a huge undertaking. It requires two choirs, two Baroque orchestras, two organs and 12 soloists. Two youth choirs were added on either side. Unfazed by the task and brimming with confidence, Artistic Director Harry Christophers briefly surveyed the forces arrayed in front of him and launched into a briskly paced performance.
The professional chorus, divided into two groups on opposite sides of the stage, sang with precise ensemble, a vibrant sound, an understanding of the text and a wide range of dynamics. The pair of orchestras, similarly situated, produced a robust sound with admirable intonation and technical mastery.
The Evangelist, Joshua Ellicort, recounted the biblical narration in speech-patterned recitatives. His clear and effortlessly produced tenor conveyed every nuance without resorting to melodramatics.
Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), who prepared the text for Bach, dramatized the story by giving commentary, as well as named roles, to soloists. Baritone Roderick Williams brought a sonorous voice and a palpable serenity to the role of Jesus and Sumner Thompson’s virile baritone made a self-righteous Pilate. He also sang some of the arias with equal skill. Soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Anna Stephany and tenor Matthew Long added pathos as they delivered reflections on the action. All three have creamy lyric voices, are able to spin a floating pianissimo, pulling out plenty of heft when required.
Singers for the other named characters came from the chorus, which only served to point out the high level of vocal abilities of all the singers on the stage.
Baroque instruments differ significantly from their modern relatives and are usually difficult to play in tune. Not so here. Even the rough-hewn honk of the oboe d’caccia came off better than in most performances. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky was an able leader and a remarkable soloist, coloring her sound with a hint of vibrato, adding warmth where needed. Some of the other strings soloists were not as successful, sounding as if the performance went at a slightly faster clip than rehearsals.
A hunched-over Christophers kept a consistent and spatially contained beat pattern in his right hand, while his left hand swooped around for expression and emphasis. He added an element of interpretative dance to his graceful motions, keeping his quick-to-really-fast tempi light on their feet, even in the chorales. But in a few places, his control slipped resulting in some scattered attacks.
Although this work is always sung in German, it sacrifices Bach’s obvious desire for immediacy and the singer’s careful preparation, for the cause of authenticity in front of a non-German speaking audience. Singing it in the vernacular would better achieve Bach’s goal of story telling. Bach might even agree: a phrase used in Aramaic is immediately translated into German by the Evangelist so Bach’s original audience would know what it meant.
The supplied translation was difficult to follow, noisy to handle and resulted in a sea of bowed heads. You had to make a choice: follow the words or watch the performance. Perhaps opera-style projected supertitles are an acceptable compromise.
H&H is the oldest performing organization in the country. It began as a community chorus. They gave the American premieres of many important works, such as: Handel’s Messiah (1818), Haydn’s Creation (1819), Verdi’s Requiem (1878), Mendelsohn’s Elijah (1848), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1853) and Mozart’s Requiem (1857). They presented the American premiere of the present work, St. Matthew Passion, in 1879. In 1986, with the appointment of Christopher Hogwood as musical director, H&H transitioned to a group of professionals that present historically informed performances such as this one.