The Carmel Bach Festival continued its 77th season on Sunday afternoon at Sunset Center, presenting J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Bach composed the huge work for the Good Friday service of 1727 at his St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. With this performance of the St. Matthew, music director Paul Goodwin completed the cycle of conducting in Carmel what he referred to as “the four great masterworks” – the other three being the B Minor Mass, the St. John Passion, and the glorious Christmas Oratorio, which was presented in its entirety to great acclaim at last year’s Festival. For this performance, Goodwin promised in his program book greeting that his interpretation of this work would be “vivid and dramatic,” and he more than delivered on his promise.
For the St. Matthew, Bach set chapters 26 and 27 of Matthew’s Gospel (Luther’s German translation of 1522), and also original texts by Christian Friedrich Henrici, whose pen name was Picander. The Gospel text covers the moments from the last supper and Jesus’ arrest, to the crucifixion and burial in the tomb. The work comprises an extraordinary combination of recitatives, arias, duets, choruses and chorales which, despite the stark Good Friday message, provide the listener with moments of great comfort, gratitude and inspiration.
Andrew Megill’s Festival Chorale, was simply superb, yet again. Their precision, dynamic range, excellent diction and range of timbre were just what Goodwin needed for this masterwork, and they provided some of the afternoon’s most moving musical moments. Divided in two as per Bach’s design, the two choirs shone individually and especially when combined, producing a sound for larger ensembles to envy. The Festival Orchestra was also divided into two orchestras and they followed Goodwin’s lead with great energy, sensitivity and musicianship—the things we listeners can take for granted sometimes, but which we dare not underappreciate. (During Part I, I found myself desiring a warmer acoustic in the hall, but a longtime Festival participant and attendee reminded me how much better the hall sounds now compared to the “old” Sunset Center before the extensive renovation. It will do just fine, thank you very much—with or without the use of the complex LARES acoustical enhancement system.)
The solo singers were excellent. Tenor Rufus Müller led the telling of the story as the Evangelist. Müller sang the difficult role from memory, and he imparted dramatic intensity with his singing, effective diction, and with very effective body language. He did struggle several times with the extremities of the Evangelist’s vocal range.
Bach used a special musical device exclusively for Jesus’ recitatives, for which violins provide a shimmering “halo” of sound over his sung words. Goodwin made Jesus’ words all the more dramatic by strongly accenting the violin entrances for most of these recitatives. (It reminded this film enthusiast of some of the dramatic effects used by composer Bernard Hermann in his Alfred Hitchcock film scores.) Singing the role of Jesus, Dashon Burton embodied him in voice and spirit, his rich bass-baritone strong and lyric in every part of his range. He remained front and center stage, but then left and reappeared in the balcony to sing his final words from the cross: Eli, Eli, lama asabthani? (Luther’s translation) or “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Bach removes the strings’ celestial “halo” from Jesus’ final words and we are reminded of what may have been the most severe aspect of Jesus’ suffering and death—separation from and rejection by God as he completed the purchase of humanity’s redemption. (Easter Sunday is coming, though, but that’s another story—and, thankfully, another Bach oratorio!)
Peter Harvey was the excellent bass soloist. In what many consider to be a musical high point of the Passion, Harvey’s Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (“Make thyself pure, my heart”) was profoundly heart-rending, challenging and comforting all at once. The alto solos were sung by countertenor Robin Blaze, who sang with great range of expression and with beauty—especially in the moving Erbarme dich (“Have mercy”), which also featured Peter Hanson’s exquisite violin obbligato. Dominique Labelle’s soprano was warm and lovely, and in Part I she sang a poignant Blute nur, du liebes Herz (“Bleed away, o thou my heart”). Tenor Aaron Sheehan displayed excellent control and he sang with passion and intensity. Members of the Chorale also made fine solo contributions, especially: Avery Griffin (Peter), Paul Speiser (Judas), Jeffrey Fields (High Priest), Tim Krol (Pilate), Angelique Zuluaga (Maid), Charles Wesley Evans (Priest) and others.
Sopranos from John Koza’s Festival Youth Chorus sang the “in ripieno” soprano part beautifully—kudos to Koza and his singers for a job well done.
After the final chorus, Paul Goodwin lowered his arms and “the service was over.” The audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation, whereupon Goodwin recognized all of the artists onstage that had united for this event. Johann Sebastian Bach was once again revealed to be one of the great evangelists and champions for the faith that ever lived, by virtue of having devoted his incredible time and talent to composing a work of this musical and spiritual magnitude and beauty.
The incomparable David Gordon gives an excellent pre-concert lecture, and the St. Matthew Passion will be performed again this Sunday, July 27th. See www.bachfestival.org for details.
Peter Tuff is a baritone soloist with extensive experience in concert, opera, oratorio, musical theater, and as a recitalist. He lived for ten years in Austria as a member of the Vienna State Opera and of the Imperial Chapel while also performing regularly in the Salzburg Festival. He has sung leading or supporting roles in over 125 operas and he continues to add to his repertoire.