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07 Apr 2017

St Matthew Passion: Armonico Consort and Ian Bostridge

Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.

Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke


A devout Lutheran, Bach frequently framed his manuscript scores with the opening and closing annotations, ‘JJ’ (Jesus Juva, Help me Jesus) ‘SDG’ (Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God alone) respectively. However, though it was designed a liturgical context with its two parts performed either side of a sermon, the St Matthew Passion is inherently dramatic. The opening calls and responses of its two orchestras and two choruses have the grandeur and gravitas, animation and restlessness of opera. And, it’s a drama in which the congregation or audience are invited, no compelled, to participate: ‘Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen’ (Come, ye daughters, help me to lament) is the chorus’s opening cry.

Several directors, Penny Woolcock, Thomas Guthrie, Jonathan Miller and Peter Sellars among them, have presented staged versions of the St Matthew Passion, but this performance at St John’s Smith Square by the Warwickshire-based Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by director Christopher Monks, needed no visual dimension to achieve its theatrical impact.

Monks’ conception of the work is one in which a quasi-mythic fatalism forces the drama unstoppably and inevitably onwards. Arias and choruses followed recitatives with scarcely a breath between them; the recitatives themselves pushed forwards towards the choric or soloistic declarations. ‘Answers’ began before the inquisitorial dust had settled. It was breathless and exciting; also terrifying. After all, we know how the ‘story’ ends.

Monks also placed choric communality at the heart of the Passion. After the remarkably transparent interplay of the dense vocal and instrumental textures of the opening chorus, in which soprano and tenor lines pushed themselves to the forefront and orchestral arguments twisted knottily, the first Chorale, ‘Herzliebster Jesu’ (Dearest Jesus), set a tone - blended, poised, yet questioning - which was sustained to the close. The chorale phrases had both strength and elasticity, and Monks’ instinct - when to push on, when hold back - was sure.

The first appearance of the ‘Passion chorale’ (‘Erkenne mich, mein Hüter’, Recognise me my shepherd) was gentle, almost vulnerable; its immediate repetition more invigorated and pressing - ‘Dein Mund hat mich gelabet’ (You mouth has succoured me). Then, greater urgency drove the dynamic upwards, and vocal enjambment (even when not indicated by the punctuation of the text) created an inexorable trajectory towards tragedy: ‘Wenn dein Herz wird erblassen,/im letzen Todesstoß,/ als denn will ich dich fassen/ in meinen Arm und Schoß’ (If your heart becomes pale in the throes of death then I will grasp you in my arms and draw you to my bosom).

The warmth of the chorale ‘Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit’ (What my God wishes, may that always happen) conveyed spiritual confidence; the dominance of the sopranos’ angelic purity in the Part 2 chorale, ‘Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen’ (If I have strayed from you), together with uncharacteristic hesitancy between phrases conveyed penitence. The choristers of St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Warwick, added a further patina of redemptive transcendence to the pivotal chorales.

The voices of the bewildered disciples and pious onlookers emerged from the chorus, emphasising the collective experience, and the exhilarating interplay between solo and choral voices reached a height when Jesus was captured in Gethsemane. ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ (My Jesus is now captured’ mourned soprano Hannah Fraser-Mackenzie and alto Polly Jeffries, to the light accompaniment of upper strings and woodwind; but their forbearing lament thrust was aside by the agitated, raging chorus, ‘Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’ (Leave him, stop, do not bind!).

The choral soloists were not all equally secure, however. Countertenor Joseph Bolger, replacing the advertised alto Emma Lewis, was rather hooty in the Part 1 ‘Buß und Reu’ (Penance and remorse) and struggled to project in the more elaborate passages; Lewis’s own subsequent address to Christ’s executioners, ‘Erbarm es Gott!’ (May God have mercy!) was characterised by lyrical power and varying colour. In the famous aria after Peter’s betrayal, ‘Erbarme dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen!’ (My God, have mercy for my tears), Bolger was affecting, however, the plangent repetitions of the text conveying the singer’s need for God to recognise his suffering, as leader Miles Golding’s eloquent elegy weaved in and out of the impassioned voice, supported by Andrew Durban’s sonorous double bass pizzicato.

Soprano Gemma King’s ringing clarity was wonderfully communicative in the trial scene, ‘Ich will dir mein Herze in Tränen schwimmt’ (Although my heart swims in tears), and she relished the chromatic twists of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’. James Geidt doubled up competently as Judas and Peter. Bass Michael Hickman was ardent in the recitative preceding ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and phrased the aria smoothly. Tenor Edward Saklatvala displayed lots of heft and colour in ‘Geduld! Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen’ (Patience! Patience! When false tongues wound me), as Charles Medlam’s viola da gamba obbligato wrapped eloquently around and between the vocal line. Richard Moore showed stamina in crafting the long, dark lines of the bass aria, ‘Komm süßes Kreuz’ (Come sweet cross).

The players of the Armonico Baroque Orchestra sensitively expressed the distress depicted in the text. Soprano Penelope Appleyard’s ‘bleeding heart’ was made tangible by the orchestra’s sighing fall in ‘Blute nur, du iebes Herz’. The oboe plaintively announced the watchman’s call, prefacing tenor Dale Harris’s sensitive arioso in which attentiveness to the text was matched by sure negotiation of the high tessitura. Jenny Janse provided an agile cello accompaniment to the two false witnesses’ defamations.

At the heart of Bach’s Passion is the Evangelist, a survivor of these terrible events whose narrative declamation brings the ancient tragedy into the present. Characteristically, Ian Bostridge was alert to every textual nuance, twisting his tenor around Bach’s cruel decorations, utterly absorbed in the tale he is telling.

Bostridge’s innate appreciation of expressive rubato, his meticulous diction and involvement with the text, his hyper-sensitivity to detail - all the things that make him such a remarkable lieder singer - were abundantly in evidence. The merest of pauses heightened the shock when one of Jesus’s followers raised his sword and ‘smote off’ the ear of the servant of the high priest. A similar slight delay following Peter’s denial of Christ was replete with almost unbearable predictability, the silence exploding angrily, ‘Und er leugnete abermal und schwur dazu’ (And again he denied with an oath).

Emotive colouring and elongation of the text pierced the air with the pain of Christ’s sorrow. Elsewhere, lines were almost ‘thrown away’, as if to suggest Christ’s inner stillness, as when the two false witnesses gave testimony, ‘Aber Jesus schwie stille’ (But Jesus held his peace). The gentleness of Bostridge’s relation of the events of the Crucifixion itself was deeply troubling. And, how many different shapes and colours can a singer find to declaim, ‘sprach er zu ihnen’ (he said unto them)? Bostridge will let you count the ways …

On occasion, the Evangelist seemed to spit out his short phrases - ‘Petrus sprach zu ihm’ (Peter said unto him), ‘Desgleichen saten auch alle Jünger’ (Likewise also said all the disciples) - resentful of Peter and the disciples’ protestations of loyalty. But, at times, particularly in Part 2, Bostridge seemed a stunned observer, delivering a swift response to the question asked by Jesus’s faithful followers, ‘Wo ist mein Jesus hin?’ (Where has my Jesus gone?), as if astonished by speed of the unfolding tragedy, then turning to face the choir and listen to their prayer. Similarly, the Evangelist nodded resignedly as the High Priest asked the crowd for their verdict, the speed of the narration - ‘Sie antworten und sprachen’ - indicating the inevitability of their eager response: ‘Er ist des Todes schuldig!’ (He is guilty of death!)

As Christ, Andrew Davies was not quite imposing enough to counter the emotional extremes of the Evangelist but the words of the Last Supper were firm and vehement: as Davies’ bass rose his ardent tone conveyed an inner anger. And, his focused voice which moved easily and evenly across the registers did convey gravitas and composure in extremity.

Monks proved expertly responsive to Bach’s manipulations of atmosphere and mood. But, while his singers and instrumentalists performed with commitment and warmth, they could not quite match the intensity of the Evangelist’s tragic narration.

I simply cannot find the words to describe the shocking power of Bostridge’s declaration, ‘Und alsbald krähete der Hahn’ (And immediately the cock crowed). Ugly, bitter but beautifully eloquent, this phrase stayed in my mind long after the performance had ended.

Claire Seymour

J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion
Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra
Director: Christopher Monks
Evangelist: Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Christus: Andrew Davies (bass)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Wednesday 5th April 2017.

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