Dallas — J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is one of his two great Passions, the other being the St. John’s. They are monumental works, inspiring whole lifetimes of scholarship, and indeed decades of work from Bach himself. While the oratorio is usually given the date 1727, Bach continued to revise the piece through the 1730s and into the 1740s. The piece is massive in scale—the March 31 performance by the Dallas Symphony clocked in at a solid three hours, not counting intermission—and in orchestration, by Baroque standards, consisting of two orchestras, two choruses, and vocal soloists.
There are two schools of thought about performing Baroque works: one is that adherence to authentic performance practice is ideal. By this argument, in performances of Bach, instruments and style should, as much as possible, replicate what listeners would have heard in the early eighteenth century. In Dallas, the Dallas Bach Society and Orchestra of New Spain perform in this way. Another school of thought is that it is important to replicate some aspects of Baroque style, such as minimal vibrato for string players and singers and comparatively small instrumental and vocal ensembles. But modern instruments and, to some extent, playing techniques are just fine.
The main issue with Jaap van Zweden’s version of the St. Matthew Passion is that it couldn’t quite decide where on this continuum it wanted to be. Some performers, such as Co-Concertmaster Nathan Olson, the superlative bass-baritone soloist Phillipe Sly, and the magnificent gamba player William Skeen, chose styles closer to Baroque performance practice. Other soloists, including Concertmaster Alex Kerr, soprano soloist Valentina Farcas, and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, used considerably more vibrato for a more contemporary-sounding interpretation. Each of these choices has its advantages and its adherents, but one consistent approach would have worked better.
Similarly, the Dallas Symphony Chorus, directed by Joshua Habermann, comprised about 80 adult voices plus, for the beginning and end of Part I, the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, directed by Cynthia Nott, added a few dozen additional young voices. This is quite a large chorus compared to number of singers that would have been used in the original performances of the work. Again, though, this is tricky territory. Fewer voices might well have resulted in more precise enunciation of the German text. But the relatively large number of voices, though still only a fraction of the total Dallas Symphony Chorus, certainly produced a majestic effect. Additionally, the voices of the chorus stayed fresh-seeming all the way to the end of this musical marathon, which is quite a feat unto itself.
The children’s chorus was impressive not only in their preparation, but also, as is consistently the case when they appear at the Meyerson, their self-discipline. They sang only at the beginning and end of Part I, and sat with admirable stillness through the rest.
While the soloists might have taken a more unified approach to style, their individual voices were excellent. Tenor James Gilchrist, as the Evangelist, was particularly outstanding in that massive role. His vibrato was limited, his voice was clear over his entire range, and his diction was precise. Local favorite baritone Matthias Goerne’s Christus was at turns poignant, triumphant, and lamenting, though his voice is certainly not a conventional Baroque one. Werner Güra’s tenor has a bit more vibrato than might be ideal for this repertoire, but his voice glows, especially in its upper register. Although soprano Valentina Farcas and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn both have contemporary-sounding voices, they are beautiful ones. Stotijn in particular has a demanding role, and maintained vocal power and projection throughout the evening.
While more consistency of approach would have produced a more satisfying result, this was still a very good (though perhaps not excellent) performance. And even a very good performance of Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion is, even for the nonbelievers among us, a truly spiritual experience and well worth the very long evening.