Tonight was the first of four performances of the St Matthew Passion from Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, with members of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, all led by Masaaki Suzuki. By coincidence it was JS Bach’s 334th birthday. While there are several compositions that are so well known that anyone can hum the tune (“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”? or “Sheep May Safely Graze”?) JS Bach’s output is so enormous that there are many compositions that aren’t well known.
And then there are the great works that are simply too difficult to be done often. First & foremost in that category would be the St Matthew Passion. The 2019 version led by Suzuki is the fourth time Tafelmusik have undertaken the work in their 40 year history.
Forgive me that my preamble is endless musing on dates & time. It’s the beginning of spring, something I mused on a few days ago. Spring or the last portion of winter usually coincide with Lent, the season that ends on Good Friday & the Easter Celebration. The Passion stories from the Gospels are a climax to the Lenten season.
I can’t help thinking about the way the text changes in its context, because of course the reception in 2019 is hardly recognizable compared to 1727 when Bach’s St Matthew Passion was composed. While there is an air of authenticity in hearing the work in a church: but it’s a secular world now. We read in Charlotte Nediger’s fascinating program notes about the Lutheran tradition in Leipzig in Bach’s time; yet it may as well be Mars considering the world we inhabit. Rather than being a setting of a text that is universally celebrated (as it was in his time), Bach’s composition is in some respects a wonderful lesson in the most ideal aspects of Christianity, a quaint exposition of another culture, if you’re not a Christian. There are traces of anti-semitism in the story (which hardly makes this one unique, as some go much further in vilifying the Jews), but mostly we’re simply taken through the dramatic narrative of Jesus’s last hours.
For someone who doesn’t know Christianity it’s in some respects a crash course in some of the key moments. Unlike Handel’s approach to the story, which pauses regularly to let soloists have their impressive moments (creating more segmentation and rest points), Bach moves the story along in an entirely different way, creating a great deal of intensity. We are watching characters from the story enact key moments, hearing the Jerusalem crowds react –aka the chorus— and of course it comes straight out of the Gospel according to St Matthew (just as the St John Passion comes from that Gospel). Sometimes the story is interrupted to hear commentaries from soloists or chorus. At times these resemble homilies, densely abstract meditations on the nature of some part of the story and its meaning.
Here’s one example from the latter part of the work.
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden O head, full of blood and wounds
voll Schmer und woller Hohn, full of suffering and full of scorn
o Haupt, zu Spott gebunden o head, bound in derision
mit deiner Dornenkron with a crown of thorns,
o Haupt, sonst schön gezieret o head, once beautifully adorned
mit höchster Her und Zier with highest honour and grae
jetzt aber hoch schimpfieret, but now highly abused:
gegrüsset seist du mir! Let me hail thee!
Now of course as a believer one listens to this text in an entirely different way from an unbeliever, as these words are admonitions, framed within the injunctions of the New Testament. In Bach’s world (that lived by those rules), this text reads very differently than it does in our own time (when the rules are for many people nothing but quaint relics).
I heartily recommend the performances, especially to anyone with even the tiniest smidgen of religious sensibility. And if you’re an atheist it might be especially compelling to you, to help explain the mysteries of Christianity, what it’s all about and why Christians care about this story.
Suzuki brings a very original approach to this work and likely any baroque piece. His contrasts are razor sharp, the moments when the chorus erupts, totally volcanic in energy & precision, but especially in the commitment of every singer & player. The fact that the observers at any moment –the members of chorus or orchestra who were not singing at a given moment—were enraptured by what they were hearing added a layer.
I was especially entranced watching James Gilchrist, our Evangelist. The role of the Evangelist is enormous, and includes several distinct sorts of singing. At times Gilchrist is telling the story quickly in a very light declamatory recitative, soaring at times to the top of his range. I just pulled out my score, there’s at least one high B, perhaps it even goes higher? Now add in the fact that he’s not just singing but telling the story. Yet that’s the least of it. He’s involved in this story, the way a prophet would be involved in such a report, virtually preaching. No that’s not the way some people sing it, but Gilchrist isn’t most people. There are also arias, sometimes sung very sweetly, sometimes in a fiercely dramatic style. Gilchrist was perfectly in tune all night, clearly articulating his text, but most importantly offering genuine ministry in telling Jesus’s story in this musical form. And (as I mentioned) when he wasn’t singing he was absorbed in the music-making all around him.
The other soloists, while asked to sing less often (as soloists, when they were not also singing with the choir in their section), were every bit as committed. Terry Wey, countertenor, showed a wonderful tone, an incisive approach to some of the most urgently passionate texts. Stephan MacLeod as Jesus was a gently powerful presence. Tyler Duncan had several very dramatic moments, as Judas, Peter & Pilate. Hannah Morrison’s beautiful soprano was very welcome whenever she had an opportunity.
As I was leaving I joked with Ivars Taurins –the usual conductor of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir & their music director—that “gee! he really knows how to conduct” (meaning Suzuki of course). After sharing a laugh, I added that Ivars should be proud. The choir sounded especially good, not just accurate but committed to the occasion. And the orchestra was every bit as good, including several delightful solos.
It’s a very full night’s work for everyone –Suzuki, Gilchrist, choir & orchestra—at about three hours of music. The St Matthew Passion continues this weekend until Sunday at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity – St. Paul’s Centre.