Kristian Bezuidenhout and Dunedin Consort Give a Dazzling and Elegant Performance of J.S. Bach: Matthäus-Passion

Nélida Nassar 06.15.2019

Kristian Bezuidenhout conducted Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion (BWV 244) before a packed Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory as part of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 20th edition. He led the Gramophone Award–winning Dunedin Consort, whose joyously vivid music-making has built their reputation as one of the best such ensembles of our day.

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the longest and most elaborate of all the works by this Baroque master; it represents the culmination of his sacred music and, indeed, of Baroque sacred music as a whole. It is one of hundreds of sacred pieces he wrote during his long tenure as director of church music and cantor of the school at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The story is taken mostly from the Gospel according to Matthew, but the additional verses he set to music were provided by several contemporary poets, principally Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the name of Picander and who also supplied the text for his secular Peasant Cantata (1742).

Bezuidenhout, who conducted the group while performing on the harpsichord, is considered one of today’s most notable and exciting keyboard artists, equally at home on the fortepiano, harpsichord, and modern piano. He succeeded in creating an emotional rendition of the Passion while removing the operatic aspects of the mass within appropriate limits, as the intensity of the story and its musical treatment by Bach are more than enough to establish the dramatic character of the work. The Dunedin Consort fully respects the composer’s musical setting with its emphasis on the dialogue form, which necessitates the performance format of a double chorus, in this case each comprising 4 soloists, and two orchestras, with 11 eleven instrumentalists in Orchestra I and of 12 in Orchestra II. This is a good example of the minimalist versions that have become common in recent years, and Bezuidenhout exploits this configuration to get the best possible stereophonic effects. Here, the soloists are placed behind the instruments, but given the small size of the orchestras they don’t overpower the singers’ voices.

The St. Matthew Passion is not a representation of the passion of Christ, but rather the narration of the event by the Evangelist, who serves as a guide to the believer and keeps the biblical text firmly in the foreground. The many examples of musical figuration contained in the score are illustrations of the dialogue in this text, but not invitations to leave the narrative to the side. This is, after all, music embedded in Protestantism and its emphasis on the primacy of the scripture, and therefore completely opposite to the tradition of the mysteries represented and illustrated in Catholicism.

Bezuidenhout offers a certain elaboration of the instrumentation of the continuo and leaves to his violinists the freedom to emphasize the often extreme shifts of mood within the score. Lively tempos are exemplified in the Cum Sancto Spiritu, and one can find unusually transparent, mellifluous and honeyed textures in every voice and every instrumental line, as in, for example, the opening Kyrie. The choice of tempi is also well suited to the symmetrical structure of the liturgy, which is punctuated by fifteen    breaks; it also highlights the virtuosity of the soloists. Moreover, the orchestras, which are always sensitive to the needs of the singers, are keenly aware of the continually varying aspects of color and balance which are meant to intensify the drama inherent in the subject.

The Passion is certainly a drama, but in Bach’s eyes, anyway, its significance should be told more than shown, and revealed, above all, through the text of the Gospels. In this performance, the narration with its wide range of accompanying emotions is beautifully conveyed. The work’s mystical and metaphysical dimensions, however, are by no means relegated to the background; rather, amidst the story’s highs and lows, light and darkness, a great serenity suffuses the piece.

Dominating the cast is tenor Hugo Hyman’s Evangelist: simple, powerful, and flawless. Bass Matthew Brook, who brings his beautiful, warm voice to the role of Jesus, is very Christ-like and has the necessary presence. Sopranos Julia Doyle and Margot Rood possess melodic and limpid tones, which seemed a bit weak, though, since they were very quickly overpowered by the orchestra, despite the lightness of the accompaniment. Much better in that respect, and also truly moving, was alto Jess Dandy, who brought great humanity and delicacy to the mezzo parts, which are perhaps the most beautiful solos in the whole score. Tenor Benedict Hymas mastered the technical difficulties of Bach’s writing, but in his case, too, the voice seemed a little thin at times. Matthias Helm sang the bass parts with agility and appropriate color, along with a very good sense of phrasing. Overall, the soloists along with their instrumental obligatti sounded refined and polished.     

The main reason for the performance’s success, however, is Bezuidenhout himself. His attention to detail, scholarship, sheer enthusiasm for the music, and the astonishingly accomplished level of performance and élan he elicits from the players brings to mind the great Carlos Kleiber. He gets it right, meaning he successfully translates the symbolic shapes and forms of Bach’s uniquely fashioned musical architecture into a vibrant, vital concert-performance organism that’s designed to endure. One good reason for this vitality is the soloists’ devotion to their singing; another is the instrumentalists’ determination to perform as best as humanly possible a work of such monumental proportion and difficulty. They all succeed in sustaining the energy and focus this task demands – and which naturally impact pitch, blend, balance, that are, the key elements required to bring off  a memorable performance of music that presents such a multitude of challenges.

The sheer joy visible in the performers and instrumentalists faces, especially the integration of music with the freely expressive movement of the soloists’ bodies as they sang, made clear just how deeply Bach’s music had affected each and every one of them, and this embodiment of the Passion’s spiritual depth and musical complexity was clearly communicated to each member of the audience. They offered us a stylistically sound account of Bach’s longest and most elaborate work, one that is modern yet historically informed, and whose interpretive point of view and technical details will surely stand the test of time. Its choral singing alone is a marvel. Following the last note, the audience stood in stillness for several seconds before breaking into enthusiastic applause and cheers.