Sunday 9 April 2023

A tale of two passions: Sebastiani's St Matthew Passion at Wigmore Hall and Bach's St John Passion at St Martin in the Fields

Sebastiani: St Matthew Passion - Fretwork in rehearsal at Wigmore Hall (Photo Fretwork)
Sebastiani: St Matthew Passion - Fretwork in rehearsal at Wigmore Hall (Photo Fretwork)

Johann Sebastiani: St Matthew Passion; Hugo Hymas, Jimmy Holliday, Lucinda Cox, Clare Wilkinson, Simon Wall, Fretwork; Wigmore Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion; Stephen Anthony Brown, Peter Edge, William Crane, St Martin's Voices, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Andrew Earis; Church of St Martin in the Fields

Two very different passions. Sebastiani's mid-17th century account from Fretwork, concentrated and highly moving, and Bach's early-18th century more operatic version from the young voices of St Martin's Voices

Bach's Passions did not occur in isolation but arose out of a strong 17th-century tradition of musical recitations of the Passion in Germany. Such recitations are known to have happened during Holy Week from the 4th century, but the Reformation, with its move to vernacular German rather than Latin, seems to have provided an extra impetus for exploring new ways of telling the story, combining monophony with polyphony. Schütz's three Passion settings from the 1660s are still unaccompanied, but from the 1640s composers were introducing instruments. All these settings focus on the gospel text in quite a concentrated format, whereas the more oratorio-style Passion, familiar from Bach's Passions is a late-17th early-18th century development and the more operatic nature of Bach's writing was something that would come in for criticism in Leipzig.

At Wigmore Hall in the afternoon of Good Friday (7 April 2023), Fretwork (Richard Boothby, Jonathan Rees, Sam Stadlen & Joanna Levine viol, Bojan Cicic & Emilia Benjamin violin, Silas Wollston organ) with Lucinda Cox (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (alto), Hugo Hymas & Simon Wall (tenor) and Jimmy Holliday (bass) performed the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani (1622-1683).

Born in Weimar, Sebastiani may have travelled to Italy for study but spent most of his working life in East Prussia in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and it was here that he wrote his St Matthew Passion setting in 1663 and published it in 1672. It represents, perhaps, an example of the highly developed pre-Bach tradition of the Passion. The focus here is almost entirely on the Gospel narration, given to the Evangelist (Hugo Hymas) with the text divided into recitation and choruses, these latter sung by everyone, with Jimmy Holliday as Christus and the other singers taking the smaller roles. Interpolated into the piece are chorales, in simple vocal presentations by solo soprano or solo alto. 

What gave the work its distinctive character was the way Sebastiani varied the orchestration. The Evangelist's recitative was accompanied by three viols and organ, whilst Christus was accompanied by two violins and organ, the chorales were accompanied by four viols. And during the recitatives, there would be moments when the viols were not playing, their restarting bringing a sense of emphasis to the text. The use of viols playing a polyphonic texture brought a significant difference to the recitative. Bach, using Italian style secco recitative, enabled the Evangelist to bring a significant element of freedom to the performance whereas here Hugo Hymas was more constrained. The result had a lyricism and a sense of structure that was different and the closest sound world that I can come to is a work like Orlando Gibbons' This is the Record of John, where the vocal line is a sort of heightened arioso, complete with little decorative touches at more descriptive moments

Hymas' was understatedly heroic as the Evangelist, singing for much of the work's 75-minute duration and bringing a fine element of text and communication to the role. He was understated but not unemotional and moments such as Jesus' death were rather moving.

The way Sebastiani pointed the narration with the chorales heightened this. There was a beautiful simplicity to the chorales, well-known (at the time) chorale melodies expressively sung by soprano Lucinda Cox and alto Clare Wilkinson accompanied by a rich texture of four viols and organ. 

Jimmy Holliday was resonant and resolute as Christus, with his more 'modern' accompaniment of Italianate violins and organ, not quite Bach's St Matthew Passion halo but definitely a setting out of the part as different. The other roles were all well taken by the other members of the vocal ensemble.

This wasn't in any way operatic, it was a musical recitation with the admirable element of clarity to the words, we hardly needed the printed programme. The whole was sober yet expressive and remarkably compelling. 

During the early 18th century, the idea of a Passion as oratorio developed; a version of the narration with interpolated arias contemplating the story. The most influential of these was that by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, published in 1712. But this was not suitable for liturgical use, the narration was a paraphrase. For his Passions, Bach took the ideas of the Passion oratorio, including using Brockes' aria texts, combined with a full gospel narration to create his liturgical passions. The mixed reaction to them from his Leipzig congregation perhaps has deprived us of further large-scale examples (after all Telemann wrote over 40 passions!)

At the Church of St Martin in the Fields on Good Friday evening (7 April 2023), St Martin's Voices joined forces with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Andrew Earis for Bach's St John Passion. Earis is the director of music at St Martin in the Fields, whilst St Martin's Voices is a professional vocal ensemble (here 13 singers) based at the church. The Evangelist was Stephen Anthony Brown, Christus was Peter Edge and Pilate was William Crane (from the choir), with the arias sung by Anne Sutton, Sarah Keating, Anna Semple, and Sophie Timms from the choir, tenor solos were sung by Robin Bailey and Peter Edge sang the bass solos. 

As can be seen from the allocation of solos, this was very much a youthful performance; the singers in the choir are all in the early stages of their professional careers. The choir made a lovely bright, focused sound, youthful and lithe yet strong and finely balanced by the modern instrument orchestra. The choral contributions, from the opening chorus right through to the moving final chorus and chorale, were some of the highlights of the performance.

The young soloists were all poised and impressive. Anna Semple had a lovely well-modulated voice in 'Von den Stricken', sober and serious but the more elaborate vocal moments elegantly done. Anne Sutton was bright and engaging in 'Ich folge dir'. Sophie Timms was warmly emotional in 'Es is vollbracht!', with a vivid middle section, whilst Sarah Keating was poised and serious in 'Zerfliesse'. Tenor soloist Robin Bailey had a fine, Italianate style with a lovely sense of line, though this was sometimes at the cost of diction. He made the ariosos very vibrant. 'Ach, mein Sinn' was bright, confident and intense, whilst 'Erwage' was beautifully shaped with a lovely focus. 

Peter Edge made a strong, intelligent Christus; he evinced real confidence in the meaning of the text as well as creating a distinct personality.  He brought the same musical intelligence to the bass solos. The arioso 'Betrachte, meine seel' with its lute obbligato was intense with strong words. 'Eilt' was vividly done, with good passagework and fine words. 'Mein teurer Heiland' combined bright tone with a lovely sense of movement.

The remaining roles were taken from choir members. William Crane made a fine, touching Pilate, warm and intelligent yet not as histrionic as some. The long section before Pilate in Part Two is the closest Bach comes to opera, but here Earis kept that under wraps, this was firmly oratorio recitation rather than neo-operatic drama.

I have left consideration of the Evangelist of Stephen Anthony Brown to the last because he seemed to stand out as if he was in a different performance. Brown was very, very histrionic, both in terms of the physicality of his performance and his vocalism. Brown pushed his voice to its limit and beyond, every word, every syllable was highly coloured. He seemed indifferent to the stresses in his voice and concentrated on histrionics and drama. It was, for me, just too much. I longed for a more understated, musical approach with the drama confined to key moments. By the end of the piece, I rather found Brown's approach to be wearing and counter-productive, and I worried about the health of his voice. But he received strong applause from the capacity audience at the end.

The orchestral players performed with discreet virtuosity, there was no standing up for solos, everything simply happened. Particularly notable was the viola da gamba of Reiko Ichise, but all were impressive. The sound, in this lively acoustic, was vivid and strong, yet elegantly stylish. 

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  • The sheer sense of engagement from the young choral singers was a joy: Bach's St Matthew Passion from Choir of King's College, London at St John's Smith Square - concert review
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