Saturday 11 April 2009

St John Passion - Thomanerchor/Biller, 10 April 2009

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

Sibylla Rubens (soprano)
Matthias Rexroth (counter-tenor)
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor: arias)
Marcus Ullmann (tenor: Evangelist)
Friedemann Röhlig (bass: Christus)
Gotthold Schwarz (bass: arias)

Choir of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Georg Christoph Biller (conductor)

From the outset, it was clear that this would be a far more satisfying performance than that of the St Matthew Passion a week earlier, also in Leipzig. There was an urgency to the great opening chorus, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher,’ with plangent oboes and driving strings preparing the way for choral imploring, but urgency is far more appropriate here than in the parallel number in the St Matthew, and in any case Georg Christoph Biller’s direction lacked Riccardo Chailly’s rigidity. It was also immediately apparent how the acoustic of the Thomaskirche was far more forgiving than the Gewandhaus to what remained in various respects an ‘authentically’ minded performance. Whereas Riccardo Chailly’s elimination of vibrato had merely made the strings, especially the violins, sound thin and ugly, here the same Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, partly as a result of a more flexible approach, was possessed of a considerably greater tonal bloom. When, in ‘Ach, mein Sinn,’ the strings did minimise vibrato, they sounded far less abrasive. However, in ‘Eilt, ihr angefochneten Seelen,’ they provided a consoling warmth that was just the ticket.

Those who claim to be reproducing the realities of Bach’s performances, or even his wishes, would do well to consider the importance of acoustics, quite apart from the matter of a liturgical setting. Wilhelm Furtwängler, excoriated by born again authenticists, was keenly aware of such issues, as well he might have been, given his period at the helm of this very orchestra. In 1929, the year after leaving Leipzig, Furtwängler wrote in his notebook, concerning performance practice (as he would never have called it):

It appears not yet to be clear that the question of whether one should employ sixteen or four first violins, a choir of thirty or three hundred people, is a question of the space in which the performance takes place (the question of whether this be chamber music or no). That the acoustic of the Thomaskirche – as in any church – is different from that of the [Berlin] Philharmonie, and that therefore not only the forces must be different, but also that the dynamics must be handled differently, seems to be unknown. That the church, with its particular acoustic designed much more for linear effects, copes much less well with dynamic variation, and thus with variation within the individual performance, than the concert hall, which exposes the sound with ruthless clarity, seems to be unknown, although it must be known that Bach wrote his Passions, etc., for immediate, practical performance in the Thomaskirche.

The ‘ruthless clarity’ of the Gewandhaus had equally required a softening of sound, which sadly remained absent, and which the church setting provided of its own accord. Then, of course, there was the undeniable special nature of hearing Bach’s passion in the Thomaskirche on Good Friday, not admittedly in the context of a service, but as a concert that proceeded almost as if this were a liturgical performance. The performers were all positioned on the balcony immediately beneath the organ loft, at the back of the church, which also contributed to the ‘non-concert’ impression. And, joy of joys, there was – without the need for any announcement, disregarded or even heeded – no applause at the end. It would have been difficult to think of a more inappropriate response for the faith and dignity expressed in the final chorale.

The setting but also Biller’s direction made for a more natural progression from recitative to aria to chorale, and so forth, thereby granting a readier sense of a coherent whole. Drama was drawn from within rather than imposed from without. I for one wished to continue to ‘turn the pages’ as the story unfolded. Perhaps this is easier to attain in the Johannine Passion setting, with its preponderance of narrative thrust, but even so, it is hardly to be taken for granted.

The role of the Thomanerchor was once again worthy of the highest of praise. Sing Bach’s music almost every week as it might, such immersion does not always translate so readily into committed performance; here it most certainly did. Whether in the chorales or the extraordinary turba choruses, every word and every note sounded as if it were meant. Once again, an inconvenient fact that our ‘authentically’ minded performers choose blithely to disregard is that Bach’s music was unquestionably written for boys’ voices. The principle of jobs for the not so young boys, or rather girls, trumps ‘authenticity’ even on its own terms, a few honourable exceptions notwithstanding. My only care in such matters is how convincing the performance proves to be; this passed with flying colours. The turba choruses were terrifying in their portrayal of the savage mob. Direction was married to contrapuntal clarity to an extent I do not recall having heard previously; this also allowed Bach’s detailed orchestration to shine through. The viciousness of the Jews’ insistence that Pilate write should not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather that Christ had so styled Himself, was chilling indeed. Whilst the chorales were certainly not unshaded, there was none of the fussiness that had so often accompanied Chailly’s approach. When one heard the words, ‘Ich, ich und meine Sünden,’ for instance, the immediacy was palpable; the sins referred to me, not just to some impersonal subject. I had my part to play in Our Lord’s Crucifixion. Likewise, subtle stress could be placed on a particular word, such as ‘Dieb’ (thief) in ‘Christus, der uns selig macht,’ without distortion. That chorale, which opens the second part, set up starkly the overwhelming sense of predestination that so distinguishes this telling of the Passion from that of St Matthew.

Marcus Ullmann was an excellent Evangelist. His delivery was driven by the words but was careful not to disregard musical considerations. Even the occasional weaker passage, such as intonational insecurity on that extraordinary downward chromatic passage upon ‘weinete’ (Peter’s crying), was largely compensated for by dramatic conviction. The onamatopeia of Christ’s scourging was chilling and another, proclamatory register was revealed by the citation of Pilate’s writing of the title on the Cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Friedemann Röhlig was a noble Christus, whom I really could not fault, exhibiting dignified fullness of tone and accuracy of pitch and diction. His fellow bass, Gotthold Schwarz had a considerable amount to do, both in his arias and in his assumption of the role of Pilate. He impressed in his various guises, exhibiting considerable versatility. Having a counter-tenor rather than a contralto – or, for that matter, a boy – lends a somewhat more operatic flavour to proceedings, or so it did here. Matthias Rexroth, bar a single slip, handled his treacherous part with great aplomb. Maximilian Schmitt delivered his tenor part with conviction and feeling. Sibylla Rubens was perhaps a little too light of tone but was at least accurate throughout. And an agreeable surprise was presented by an anonymous member of the choir popping up to sing the Maid’s single line. All of these ‘characters’, whether explicitly designated or no, contributed to the unfolding of the narrative. This was a moving experience indeed.