Johann Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion at Wigmore Hall

On Good Friday, it was out with the new and in with the old at Wigmore Hall.

A little context, first.  In Germany, Baroque music was embedded in religious culture, and it was also a major element in the way that religion was experienced, large parts of the liturgical services being chanted or sung, with congregations actively involved in that music-making – including the chorales of cantatas and Lenten passions.  In the later part of the seventeenth century, the musical style of such works became increasingly innovative with a variety of forms and styles being brought together – recitatives, arias, sinfonias – in a theatrical idiom.  And, the works became longer, too, and involved expanded instrumental forces.  Often virtuosic demands were made of soloists, both singers and instrumentalists.

In Leipzig, though his appointment in 1704 as organist and music director at the New Church was short-lived, Georg Philipp Telemann was pivotal in fostering the new ‘cantata style’ which was further promoted by his successors, and when J.S. Bach arrived in the city in 1723, he established this new idiom at the churches of St Thomas and St Nicholas.  Not everyone was pleased by the integration of elements associated with secular contexts – the opera, the coffee house, French dances – within liturgical forms, however, some arguing that dance rhythms had no place in church and the purely instrumental items should be limited in number.

But, the ‘new style’ seems to have been generally popular with congregations, and this ‘theatrical’ mix of the secular and sacred is what we’re most familiar with today, as the Lenten passion has largely left the church and found a home in the concert hall.  So, this performance by Fretwork and soloists at Wigmore Hall on Good Friday afternoon of the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani (1622-83), which existed in manuscript form by 1663, offered a welcome opportunity to return to the ‘old style’, filling in the gap, as it were, between Heinrich Schütz and Bach.

Sebastiani was born in Weimar and spent most of his career in Königsberg – though the Italianisation of his name suggests that he studied in that country.  He’s generally thought to have been the first composer to formally introduce Lutheran chorales into Lenten passions (though previously they may have been incorporated informally as congregational hymns).  In his St Matthew Passion they are scored for soprano solo (at Wigmore Hall they were shared between two soloists), four viols and continuo (here. a chamber organ). Sebastiani’s orchestration is inventive.  The Evangelist and other solo roles such as Pilate and Judas are accompanied by the continuo and consort of viols; the bass role of Christ is illuminated by the brighter ‘halo’ of two violins.

Fretwork performed Sebastiani’s Passion at Wigmore Hall in 2021, when the pared down nature of the work must have been apt in the light of pandemic-enforced restrictions and when online broadcasts were necessarily taking the place of live interactions between musicians and audiences.  Tenor Hugo Hymas was the Evangelist on that occasion, and he returned here to present a performance which found nuance in Sebastiani’s undemonstrative idiom.

Though the Evangelist’s vocal line is more regularly ‘structured’ than Bach’s recitative, Hymas created a natural flow and flexibility which felt surprisingly ‘spontaneous’ and which persuasively integrated moments of theatre and of pathos into the storytelling.  Well-judged ‘heightening’ of the declamatory phrases created narrative continuity.  Equally tellingly, subtle pauses and hiatuses introduced drama and tension, as in the account of Christ’s grieving and distress in the garden of Gethsemane.  When telling of the disciples’ betrayal, “Da verliessen ihn alle Jünger und flohen” (Then all his disciples abandoned him and fled), Hymas’s narrative gained an impetus seemingly fuelled by anger and regret; and, bitterness imbued the Evangelist’s account of the crowd’s violence, “Da speieten sie aus in sein Angesich und schlugen ihn mit Fausten” (Then they spat in his face and struck him with their fists).  He made Peter’s recollection of Jesus’s foretelling of his betrayal tangibly pained, while his account of the crucifixion was distressing in its plain directness.

The chorales occur at significant points in the narrative, as when the crowd mocks and robes Christ as King of the Jews, (‘O Lamm Gottes Unschuldig’).  Here, many of the chorales were sung by mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson who seemed to struggle a little to centre her pitch and whose phrasing I found rather four-square – though admittedly the chorales have a narrative rather than a dramatic function.  Others were taken by soprano Lucinda Cox whose pure tone was cleansing and uplifting, especially so in ‘Gott sei gelobet’ (God be praised) at the Last Supper, where Sebastiani’s harmonies are thoughtful, and when Christ prays in the garden of Gethsemane (‘Vater unser’).

Jimmy Holliday was an articulate Jesus and though at times I felt that he might have projected more emphatically, there were moments of touching communication, as when Jesus explains to his disciples that ‘This night you will all be offended … [f]or it is written: I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’, words of warning which Holliday delivered with careful weight and balance.  And, there was assertiveness, too, when Jesus berates his disciples, “Ach! Wollt ihr nun schlafen und ruhen?” (Do you want not to sleep and rest?), when the hour has come for the son of man to be given over to the hands of sinners.  Jesus’s cry, at the ninth hour, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?” had stirring rhetorical impact.

Wilkinson took the role of Judas and tenor Simon Wall was an intense, earnest Peter and a pressing Caiphas – Hymas’s restraint when urged to respond to the high priest’s questioning was brilliantly judged – and was strikingly expressive as Pilate.  The soloists came together to form crowds and witnesses, fervent when condemning Peter as “one of them”, but rather ‘genteel’ when the mob cries for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. There was a fluency, though, in the dialogues and passages of rapid exchange, and the collective recognition, “Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen” (Truly, this man was the son of Go) was a moment of touching lucidity.

Fretwork, whose viol parts largely double the vocal lines, were characteristically sensitive to the idiom and its purpose, while Bojan Čičić and Emilia Benjamin brought some sunshine into the darkness. The instrumentalists were especially expressive in the ‘Symphonia’ which marks a moment in the service when a lesson would have been read.  Organist Silas Wollston seemed to find just the right ‘colours’ to heighten the shadows and peaks of the narrative. 

This was a performance which prioritised intimacy and integrity, probably ‘authentically’ so, and did not strive for undue ‘dramatic’ impact.  The care and control resulted in moments of touching eloquence and a prevailing reverence.

Claire Seymour

Lucinda Cox (cantus), Clare Wilkinson (altus), Hugo Hymas (tenor, Evangelist), Simon Wall (tenor), Jimmy Holliday (bass, Christus); Fretwork: Richard Boothby, Jonathan Rees, Sam Stadlen and Joanna Levine (viols); Bojan Čičić and Emilia Benjamin (violins), Silas Wollston (organ)

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 7th April 2023.

ABOVE: Image courtesy of Wigmore Hall Trust, 2023.