Leipzig’s venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra arrived at London’s Barbican Centre with so much more than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
They brought with them history, tradition, and Bach’s very own choir from St. Thomas’s Church where his passion first startled Leipzig’s faithful on Good Friday 1727. You cannot underestimate connections like that and the responsibility to honour them clearly weighed heavily on conductor Riccardo Chailly and his highly specialised group of performers. The seriousness of the preparation, the rightness of the style, and a palpable sense of awe in the service of this great and challenging work illuminated every page.
First to startle was the double-chorus - the St. Thomas’s Boys Choir and Tolz Boys Choir - whose sensational presence, power, and precision made something entirely new of the opening chorale-fantasia with its extraordinary, even shocking, dialogue between the “Daughter of Zion” and the bemused faithful. The open-throated clarity of this singing, its subtlety and nuance, is something I’ve rarely heard equalled by even professional adults. Indeed, the reflective chorales carried a poise and an abiding wisdom which totally belied the row after row of shining young faces before us. The final incarnation of the famous so-called “Passion” chorale, richly embellished at the moment of Christ’s death, was more perfect and more affecting than anything I’ve heard in a long time.
The challenge of the St. Matthew Passion lies with the extreme concision of the myriad moments which make up its considerable whole. They are like snapshots of the scriptures, fleeting and forceful, sometimes little more than a shout or exclamation, a flash of graphic instrumental or vocal colour. Chailly and his soloists, vocal and instrumental, entirely understood how to point and savour them, so that the moment of the first communion, for instance, drew from the Evangelist (the vocally quirky but verbally compelling Johannes Chum) the most sublime phrase he sang all evening to the words: “Take, eat; this is my body.”
The arias of the Passion are, of course, the emotional climacterics of the piece and all of Chailly’s soloists, not least the two women, alto Marie-Claude Chappuis (superb in her recitatives around the Crucifixion) and late replacement soprano, Sybella Rubens, understood all too well how the words and all that they communicate must always take precedence over vocal vanity. No hint of narcissism on this platform. Even Thomas Quasthoff could be seen joining in the chorales to warm up for his arias. Now that’s what I call the communal approach.
So an extraordinary performance, beautiful and eventful and enduring. When the single string chord symbolising the moment Christ is finally laid to rest is so quiet as to evoke the silence of perfect peace, you know you are in the presence of real artistry.