Arts & Events

American Bach Soloists Reprise ST. MATTHEW PASSION

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday March 24, 2019 - 09:44:00 PM

Reprising Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which they last performed locally in 2015, American Bach Soloists presented this monumental work throughout the Bay Area over the weekend of March 22-25. I caught the Saturday evening performance at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. The cast featured many of the same singers from the 2015 performances. Baritone William Sharp again sang the role of Christ (Christus in German), and both soprano Hélène Brunet and mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko repeated their roles from 2015. Once again, the orchestral forces were divided into two groups, as were the choruses, thereby highlighting the many antiphonal passages in Bach’s score.  

Where the score is concerned, ABS’s Music Director Jeffrey Thomas uses the relatively spare orchestration Bach himself would have used rather than the large-scale orchestration Felix Mendelssohn employed when he revived the long-forgotten St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig in 1829. Likewise, American Bach Soloists perform on period instruments, thus approximating as best as possible the sonorities of Bach’s era. Further, the American Bach Choir sings the large chorales that, in Bach’s time, were sung by the church congregation, who knew these set pieces by heart. 

The St. Matthew Passion begins with a brief instrumental introduction, then launches an antiphonal call-and-response between the two choruses. “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen”/”Come, you daughters, help me lament,” sings Chorus I. “Sehet,”/”See” they add. “Wen?”/”Whom,” replies Chorus II. “den Bräutigam,”/”the bridegroom,” sings Chorus I. Here Bach’s text suggests the notion that Christ is the bridegroom of the worshipful Christian congregation. Yet these opening lines are addressed to unbelievers, the daughters of Zion, that is to say, the Old Testament Jews. So there is here both a forward and a backward glance, with the backward glance suggesting the union of the Old and New Testaments, so that Old Testament Jews, if the follow the teachings of Christ, can become the Christians of the New Testament.  

Just as The Gospel According to Matthew is narrated from Matthew’s viewpoint, so too is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For these ABS performances, British tenor Guy Cutting sang the role of the Evangelista. Cutting’s high tenor sounded almost like a countertenor, with the result that although he sang with great clarity, his voice did not always project strongly. This, however, is only a minor reservation, for in most respects Guy Cutting was superb as the Evangelista. Bach gave to the person of Christ a specific identity who speaks (or sings) in his own voice, and Bach underscored the sacred aspect of Christ and his utterances by accompanying Christ’s words with a “halo” in the strings. Baritone William Sharp sang grandly as Christus, though I seem to remember his voice as being stronger when he sang this role back in 2015.  

As in 2015, the vocal highlights were provided by Hungarian-born mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko. Her voice has a lilting quality that is sumptuous indeed. The aria “Erbarme dich,”/”Have mercy, Lord” as sung by Agnes Vojtko is a thing of utmost beauty! To my mind, it is the supreme highlight of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  

Almost as beautiful was Agnes Vojtko’s early recitative “Du lieber Heiland du”/”you dear Savior,” followed by the aria, “Buß und Reu”/”Penance and remorse.” With an accompaniment of two flutes, superbly performed here by Sandra Miller and Janet See, this offered yet another highlight. Likewise, the concluding recitative and aria as sung here by Agnes Vojtko, make a resoundingly beautiful ending to the work as a whole. 

Soprano Hélène Brunet also had some gorgeous moments, as in her first aria, “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’?”I want to give you my heart.” This vocal part features accompaniment by two oboes da caccia, ably performed here by Stephen Hammer and Meg Owens. Also beautiful was the duet between Hélène Brunet and Agnes Vojtko plus chorus, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”/”Now my Jesus has been taken,” accompanied by two flutes, two oboes, and two violins. Baritone Jesse Blumberg was excellent as Pontius Pilate; and baritone Constantine Novotny ably sang several small parts. Tenor Steven Brennfleck was convincing as Petrus, and soprano Kathleen Aungst had at least one lovely solo aria, “Blut nur, du liebes Herz!”/”Bleed, oh dear heart!” Countertenor Nicholas Burns also had at least one gorgeous aria, “Erbarm es Gott!”/”Have mercy, God!”; and tenor Mathew Hill shone in the aria, “Geduld!”/”Patience!” Violoncellist William Skeen had a lovely solo accompanying an aria near the close of this St. Matthew Passion. Violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Tatiana Chulochnikova of Orchestra I and violinists Tekla Cunningham and Jude Ziliak of Orchestra II were excellent throughout. Conductor Jeffrey Thomas led his forces with his usual sure hand.