Of Bach’s two Passions, “St. John” is the more fiery, dramatic and unsettling. “St. Matthew” is something like his wise and contemplative brother.
And this is how the “St. Matthew Passion” presented itself Thursday at Carnegie Hall, with Bernard Labadie at the head of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, accompanied by three choirs and half a dozen soloists . It is the battery of musical forces required for Bach’s Lenten masterpiece, which recounts for nearly three hours the death and resurrection of Jesus, with meditative asides in the form of chorales, recitatives and arias da capo.
Bach’s score begins as if its volume had been carefully edited. Here it was more like a radio dial finding a station, with the orchestra shaking before settling into a fluid momentum. Under Labadie’s baton, the music was resolutely measured but balanced; his bursts of grandeur didn’t need to be exaggerated to land powerfully. From the start: The overture built calmly towards what conductor John Eliot Gardiner called an aural analogue of a “Veronese or Tintoretto Altarpiece” — immersive, its elements taking advantage of their interaction.
St. Luke’s Orchestra performed with historically informed performance qualities, but not with complete devotion to it in the slightly slippery bowing of the strings, judicious ornamentation and the use of largely modern instruments. Split into two formations, it also had two solo violins: Krista Bennion Feeney, a violinist gifted with elegant phrasing, and Benjamin Bowman (who plays the same role in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra), with agility and impressive clarity. Stephen Taylor’s human oboe took on the character of a vocal soloist, and Mélisande Corriveau’s viola da gamba had a crisp, authoritative articulation befitting its prominent place at center stage.
But the stars of the show may have been the choirs: La Chapelle de Québec and the Choeur de la Société Haendel et Haydn, and the boys of the Chœur Saint-Thomas in the first circle of boxes, all practically faultless in a polyphony delicately woven and even memorable. in passing moments like the jerky vigor of “Sind Blitze, sind Donner”.
As Evangelist, tenor Julian Prégardien (inheriting a role from his father, Christoph) told Matthieu’s story with conviction and enthusiasm; Tellingly, he was the only soloist not to sing with a score in hand. Expressive, with a soft and sympathetic upper range, it was also sometimes less steady and assured at full voice—unable to match the quivering restlessness of “Und siehe da” after the death of Jesus.
Jesus was sung by bass-baritone Philippe Sly with stoic fatalism, its gentle warmth rending its tragic dignity in verses like “Du sagest”, then shattering in its resigned agony at its last words, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani ?
Joshua Blue, a tenor filling in for the ailing Andrew Staples, had a steady glow – much like his fellow soloist, soprano Carolyn Sampson, who, after warming up, rode the runs with deft control and enunciation. Young countertenor Hugh Cutting was on less sure footing in similar passages, in which his intonation was unreliable against softer legato melodies. This is where he shone and showed his most promise: Cutting possesses a penetrating force and lushness that doesn’t come easily with his type of voice. His instrument may not have been fully formed, but his “Erbarme dich” was.
Another notable was Matthew Brook, who during the first part was a chameleon in tunes attached to Judas and Peter but in the second part took a solemn turn: first in “Komm, suß Kreuz”, then in “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”, which he sang softly, with the lulling phrases of a lullaby.
This air was all the more moving because its feeling was not forced. The “St. Matthew Passion” is more meditation than melodrama, and this reading pushed that belief to the last bar – its dissonance barely held, the slightest tension resolving with the grace of rest that it is. meant to reflect.
Orchestra of Saint Luke
Performed at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.