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Reviews/Music

Easter story trimmed but taut

18 April 2019

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral, St Matthew Passion
Perth Concert Hall, April 16 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-passion) is generally regarded as one of the outstanding monuments of Western music. It uses text from the Gospel according to St Matthew to re-tell, indeed re-enact, the story of the crucifixion, with voice parts for a narrating Evangelist, Pontius Pilate, St Peter and Jesus himself. Musically, it is constructed in a framework of choruses, Lutheran chorales, recitative (accompanied and otherwise) and aria.  The narrative is basically carried forward by stretches of unaccompanied recitative. It is a complex construction, but in performance can be a transfixing experience whatever one’s spiritual beliefs.

It is also undeniably long. This led to some hesitancy in its reception in the eighteenth century, during which the most often performed passion was Graun’s Tod Jesu (1755). The Bach version’s more recent popularity is said to be due to Mendelssohn’s recuperation and abridgement in 1829, the centenary of its original premier. In modern times, unabridged versions are frequently performed and extensively recorded; it usually runs somewhere between two and a half and three hours, usually with at least one interval.  Why then abridge at all? Audiences are able to sit through Wagner and extremely long movies like the Lord of the Rings series. For this performance by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the reason offered in the printed program is that “WASO rehearsal schedule is not limitless”. Why then do it at all? Why not the much more convenient (shorter) St John Passion, for instance? Obviously these are rhetorical questions but, on the one hand, audiences who know the work may be discombobulated and perhaps disappointed and, on the other, Bach’s intentions are embodied in a work which is very long but which is his best idea of how to present them. Any abridgement is second guessing the composer, who is after all generally regarded as a towering genius.

Rather than the Mendelssohn version, the shortening in this case is the work of respected conductor Joseph Nolan, who has achieved wonders with the featured St George’s Cathedral Consort. In rejecting Mendelssohn’s version, he argues in the program that he has kept the “mainframe of the story intact and that the key relationships are seamless”. In so doing however about a third of the work – it came in at two one hour parts with an interval timed part way into Bach’s part two – has been lost, including such narrative segments as the Annointing in Bethany, the initial Betrayal of Judas, the Last Supper and half of the Interrogation by the High Priests, along with six arias and two chorales.

So how does that work out in practice?  In Part One, it seemed a breathless leap from the initial chorus and chorale to the soprano recitative and aria ‘Ich will dir mein Herze’, and similarly with the other cuts, so while the key relationships might not jar, the lack of continuity does, certainly for those who know the work. The other problem on the night, which might be related, was that Part One was dramatically inert; a lot of well delivered narrative, beautiful sounds and exquisite singing and playing overall, but no real excitement. Part Two, which was more intact, also fared better dramatically; from the soprano’s Erhat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe on was more gripping (albeit lacking the baritone’s Ja, freilich … Komm, susses Kruz and the alto’s Ach, Golgotha …Sehet! Sehet!). The concluding chorus Herr, wir haben gedacht was as riveting as it should be.

On the plus side, the decision for the chorales to be sung a capella was more than rewarding, with the Consort’s well attested discipline and vocal beauty to the fore. The modern instruments of the small sized orchestra were played with Baroque sensibility if not pitch, and special mention should be made of concertmaster Laurence Jackson, particularly with respect to his solo accompaniment to Aus Liebe, Liz Chee exquisite on oboe throughout but noticeably in Ich will bei meinem Jesu and Mache dich, and flutemeister Andrew Nicholson. All was well supported by a continuo group comprising cello (Noeleen Wright) and chamber organ (Stewart Smith).

Tenor Paul McMahon as the Evangelist with Andrew Foote (baritone) as Jesus held the work together with sterling performances. Sara Macliver’s ethereal but tensile soprano was as exquisite, and sung with as much feeling, as ever. As mentioned, her aria Aus Liebe raised the dramatic tension in Part Two creating, with the flute and oboes, a stunning aural effect. Mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell is another local glittering star, and her creamy golden tone was well to the fore, particularly in the crowd-pleasing Erbarme dich.  James Clayton’s resonant bass sounded somewhat restrained; the frequent positioning of the soloists behind the orchestra didn’t help. Richard Butler sang the solo tenor parts with a pleasant plangency but was not quite comfortable in the passage work. Smaller roles were competently sung by members of the chorus. The performance received warm if not quite rapturous applause.

Some in the audience may have been remembering the Perth Festival performance of 2005, conducted by Graham Abbott and semi-staged by Lindy Hume, which included some of the same soloists and orchestral players with period instruments. It clocked in at something over three hours including one interval, with which everyone seemed to cope, and indeed it was totally absorbing. Perhaps the world, and Perth, have changed too much, but a future uncut or even less cut St Matthew Passion is surely not too much to hope for.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

Past Articles

  • Musical fireworks

    Remarkable performances by soprano Sara Macliver and conductor Dane Lam light up this concert by the WA Symphony Orchestra, reports Sandra Bowdler.

  • Massive Mozart

    Mozart’s Mass in C minor is one of his more sublime masterpieces, but its impact was somewhat mitigated by unbalanced forces, says Sandra Bowdler

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