St Matthew Passion: Armonico Consort and Ian Bostridge

A devout Lutheran, Bach frequently framed his manuscript scores with the
opening and closing annotations, ‘JJ’ (Jesus Juva, Help me Jesus)
‘SDG’ (Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God alone) respectively. However,
though it was designed a liturgical context with its two parts performed
either side of a sermon, the St Matthew Passion is inherently
dramatic. The opening calls and responses of its two orchestras and two
choruses have the grandeur and gravitas, animation and restlessness of
opera. And, it’s a drama in which the congregation or audience are invited,
no compelled, to participate: ‘Kommt, ihr Tˆchter, helft mir
klagen’ (Come, ye daughters, help me to lament) is the chorus’s opening

Several directors, Penny Woolcock, Thomas Guthrie, Jonathan Miller and
Peter Sellars among them, have presented staged versions of the St Matthew Passion, but this performance at St John’s Smith Square
by the Warwickshire-based Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, conducted
by director Christopher Monks, needed no visual dimension to achieve its
theatrical impact.

Monks’ conception of the work is one in which a quasi-mythic fatalism
forces the drama unstoppably and inevitably onwards. Arias and choruses
followed recitatives with scarcely a breath between them; the recitatives
themselves pushed forwards towards the choric or soloistic declarations.
‘Answers’ began before the inquisitorial dust had settled. It was
breathless and exciting; also terrifying. After all, we know how the
‘story’ ends.

Monks also placed choric communality at the heart of the Passion.
After the remarkably transparent interplay of the dense vocal and
instrumental textures of the opening chorus, in which soprano and tenor
lines pushed themselves to the forefront and orchestral arguments twisted
knottily, the first Chorale, ‘Herzliebster Jesu’ (Dearest Jesus), set a
tone – blended, poised, yet questioning – which was sustained to the close.
The chorale phrases had both strength and elasticity, and Monks’ instinct –
when to push on, when hold back – was sure.

The first appearance of the ‘Passion chorale’ (‘Erkenne mich, mein H¸ter’,
Recognise me my shepherd) was gentle, almost vulnerable; its immediate
repetition more invigorated and pressing – ‘Dein Mund hat mich gelabet’
(You mouth has succoured me). Then, greater urgency drove the dynamic
upwards, and vocal enjambment (even when not indicated by the punctuation
of the text) created an inexorable trajectory towards tragedy: ‘Wenn dein
Herz wird erblassen,/im letzen Todesstofl,/ als denn will ich dich fassen/
in meinen Arm und Schofl’ (If your heart becomes pale in the throes of death
then I will grasp you in my arms and draw you to my bosom).

The warmth of the chorale ‘Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit’ (What my
God wishes, may that always happen) conveyed spiritual confidence; the
dominance of the sopranos’ angelic purity in the Part 2 chorale, ‘Bin ich
gleich von dir gewichen’ (If I have strayed from you), together with
uncharacteristic hesitancy between phrases conveyed penitence. The
choristers of St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Warwick, added a further patina
of redemptive transcendence to the pivotal chorales.

The voices of the bewildered disciples and pious onlookers emerged from the
chorus, emphasising the collective experience, and the exhilarating
interplay between solo and choral voices reached a height when Jesus was
captured in Gethsemane. ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ (My Jesus is now
captured’ mourned soprano Hannah Fraser-Mackenzie and alto Polly Jeffries,
to the light accompaniment of upper strings and woodwind; but their
forbearing lament thrust was aside by the agitated, raging chorus, ‘Laflt
ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’ (Leave him, stop, do not bind!).

The choral soloists were not all equally secure, however. Countertenor
Joseph Bolger, replacing the advertised alto Emma Lewis, was rather hooty
in the Part 1 ‘Bufl und Reu’ (Penance and remorse) and struggled to project
in the more elaborate passages; Lewis’s own subsequent address to Christ’s
executioners, ‘Erbarm es Gott!’ (May God have mercy!) was characterised by
lyrical power and varying colour. In the famous aria after Peter’s
betrayal, ‘Erbarme dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Z‰hren willen!’ (My God, have
mercy for my tears), Bolger was affecting, however, the plangent
repetitions of the text conveying the singer’s need for God to recognise
his suffering, as leader Miles Golding’s eloquent elegy weaved in and out of
the impassioned voice, supported by Andrew Durban’s sonorous double bass

Soprano Gemma King’s ringing clarity was wonderfully communicative in the
trial scene, ‘Ich will dir mein Herze in Tr‰nen schwimmt’ (Although my
heart swims in tears), and she relished the chromatic twists of ‘Aus Liebe
will mein Heiland sterben’. James Geidt doubled up competently as Judas and
Peter. Bass Michael Hickman was ardent in the recitative preceding ‘Gerne
will ich mich bequemen’ and phrased the aria smoothly. Tenor Edward
Saklatvala displayed lots of heft and colour in ‘Geduld! Geduld! Wenn mich
falsche Zungen stechen’ (Patience! Patience! When false tongues wound me),
as Charles Medlam’s viola da gamba obbligato wrapped eloquently around and
between the vocal line. Richard Moore showed stamina in crafting the long,
dark lines of the bass aria, ‘Komm s¸fles Kreuz’ (Come sweet cross).

The players of the Armonico Baroque Orchestra sensitively expressed the
distress depicted in the text. Soprano Penelope Appleyard’s ‘bleeding
heart’ was made tangible by the orchestra’s sighing fall in ‘Blute nur, du
iebes Herz’. The oboe plaintively announced the watchman’s call, prefacing
tenor Dale Harris’s sensitive arioso in which attentiveness to the text was
matched by sure negotiation of the high tessitura. Jenny Janse provided an
agile cello accompaniment to the two false witnesses’ defamations.

At the heart of Bach’s Passion is the Evangelist, a survivor of
these terrible events whose narrative declamation brings the ancient
tragedy into the present. Characteristically, Ian Bostridge was alert to
every textual nuance, twisting his tenor around Bach’s cruel decorations,
utterly absorbed in the tale he is telling.

Bostridge’s innate appreciation of expressive rubato, his meticulous
diction and involvement with the text, his hyper-sensitivity to detail –
all the things that make him such a remarkable lieder singer – were
abundantly in evidence. The merest of pauses heightened the shock when one
of Jesus’s followers raised his sword and ‘smote off’ the ear of the
servant of the high priest. A similar slight delay following Peter’s denial
of Christ was replete with almost unbearable predictability, the silence
exploding angrily, ‘Und er leugnete abermal und schwur dazu’ (And again he
denied with an oath).

Emotive colouring and elongation of the text pierced the air with the pain
of Christ’s sorrow. Elsewhere, lines were almost ‘thrown away’, as if to
suggest Christ’s inner stillness, as when the two false witnesses gave
testimony, ‘Aber Jesus schwie stille’ (But Jesus held his peace). The
gentleness of Bostridge’s relation of the events of the Crucifixion itself
was deeply troubling. And, how many different shapes and colours can a
singer find to declaim, ‘sprach er zu ihnen’ (he said unto them)? Bostridge
will let you count the ways …

On occasion, the Evangelist seemed to spit out his short phrases – ‘Petrus
sprach zu ihm’ (Peter said unto him), ‘Desgleichen saten auch alle J¸nger’
(Likewise also said all the disciples) – resentful of Peter and the
disciples’ protestations of loyalty. But, at times, particularly in Part 2,
Bostridge seemed a stunned observer, delivering a swift response to the
question asked by Jesus’s faithful followers, ‘Wo ist mein Jesus hin?’
(Where has my Jesus gone?), as if astonished by speed of the unfolding
tragedy, then turning to face the choir and listen to their prayer.
Similarly, the Evangelist nodded resignedly as the High Priest asked the
crowd for their verdict, the speed of the narration – ‘Sie antworten und
sprachen’ – indicating the inevitability of their eager response: ‘Er ist
des Todes schuldig!’ (He is guilty of death!)

As Christ, Andrew Davies was not quite imposing enough to counter the
emotional extremes of the Evangelist but the words of the Last Supper were
firm and vehement: as Davies’ bass rose his ardent tone conveyed an inner
anger. And, his focused voice which moved easily and evenly across the
registers did convey gravitas and composure in extremity.

Monks proved expertly responsive to Bach’s manipulations of atmosphere and
mood. But, while his singers and instrumentalists performed with commitment
and warmth, they could not quite match the intensity of the Evangelist’s
tragic narration.

I simply cannot find the words to describe the shocking power of
Bostridge’s declaration, ‘Und alsbald kr‰hete der Hahn’ (And immediately
the cock crowed). Ugly, bitter but beautifully eloquent, this phrase stayed
in my mind long after the performance had ended.

Claire Seymour

J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion

Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra

Director: Christopher Monks

Evangelist: Ian Bostridge (tenor)

Christus: Andrew Davies (bass)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Wednesday 5th April 2017.

product_title=Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke