Tuesday 7 April 2009

St. Matthew Passion from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

To the Barbican on Sunday to hear Bach's St. Matthew Passion performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly. Generally I prefer small forces in this work, particularly when it comes to singers. My preferred recording is Paul McCreesh's account with 1 voice to a part; we heard McCreesh and his forces perform the work at St. Johns Smith Square and were bowled over. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are currently touring their own St. Matthew Passion, again with just 8-singers but unfortunately we are going to miss the performance at the South Bank on Thursday, though seeing it performed with just 8 singers in the vast cavern of the Royal Festival Hall is not ideal.

So why, do you ask, were we at the Barbican on Sunday to hear the work sung by 90 singers and an orchestra of some 90 players. Well, I've never been completely dogmatic on the issue and my main response is 'convince me'. The a notable large scale version of the work that I saw was a performance at the Edinburgh Festival in the 1970's which had Jessye Norman singing the alto solos and this was, in many ways, profoundly moving.

Also, the Leipzig players have a special connection with Bach. Not only do the come from Leipzig where Bach spent his final great period of his life, but the orchestra was founded not long after he died. They are still involved in performing Bach cantatas at the St. Thomas Church.

One aspect of the performance that I had not anticipated was one which, frankly, made it most special. The two choirs were made up of boys from the St. Thomas Church and the Tölz Boys Choir, though in the case of the latter you had to stretch the word boy a little when it came to their tenors and basses. This meant that not only were the organisers arranging a tour for some 180 singers and musicians, but half of these were boys and some 60 were pre-pubertal boys. This was one of the biggest choir of boys that I have seen for a long time.

Would they be up to it? The answer was a resounding yes. St Thomas's provided Choir 1 with the Tölz Boys Choir making up choir 2. The choral sound was bright, clear, flexible and firm. They were responsive to Riccardo Chailly's shaping of the music, could spin long lines where necessary and had a brilliant attack in the turbae. All in all, I have never heard a performance quite like it.

The choir was beautifully counter-balanced by the Leipzig Orchestra. They provided some superb solo playing in the various arias and accompanied finely. Under Chailly's direction this was a highly shaped performance. Not for Chailly the emulation of period performance practice, he shaped the music as he would any later piece in the repertoire. And you have to respect him for it, this is a genuine performance style and if I have to have symphonic Bach, then I want it as good as this. As with Sir Colin Davis's Messiah with the LSO, the sheer quality of the music making and the superb way the singers and players responded to Chailly's vision made the whole thing worth while.

My only problem with this style performance is the nature of the extreme contrasts which it engenders. The Evangelist (Johannes Chum) sings accompanied by a few continuo instruments and then the chorus come blasting in with one of the turbae. You can't change it, if you want symphonic Bach then you get these extremes of contrast.

If I have left the soloists till last it is because they provided a well integrated, but not showy, ensemble which meshed in with Chailly's vision. You never felt that any of them were chafing under his direction and all shaped their musical lines accordingly, resulting in some moments of great beauty. Soprano Sibylla Rubens was a last minute replacement, but she still produced some beautifully refined tone. Mezzo Marie-Claude Chappuis was similarly refined. I did not feel that her performance reached the depth of expression that someone like Janet Baker brought to the role, but you sensed that refinement, stillness and great beauty were the keynotes of this performance. Tenor Maximillian Schmitt was a good equal to these. Extremely noteable was the bass soloist, Thomas Quasthoff, who contributed some of the finest singing of the evening, though his tendency to croon the quieter passages may not have been to everyone's taste (I'm in two minds about it myself!).

Johannes Chum contributed a vivid Evangelist, but stillness and beauty were still the watchwords and he never got over-wrought as some Evangelists can. I sensed that the part might lie a little high for him, there was a feeling that the top notes were carefully shaded off. But he never sounded strained and maintained his musical elegance to the end. Hanno Muller-Brachman was a Christus of noble demeanor with a voice which resembled the young John Tomlinson.

The same forces will be going into the studio to record the work and I can't wait to hear the results. Whilst symphonic Bach will remain something of a speciality for me, when performed like this who can resist.

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