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Concert reviews

Bach (JS): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Netherlands Bach Society; Kampen Boys Choir
Dir.: Jos van Veldhoven

concert: Utrecht, April 4, 2006

Nico van der Meel (Evangelist), tenor; Susanne Rydén (I - solo), Anne Grimm (II - solo), Sara Jäggi (I - ripieno), Marjon Strijk (II - ripieno), soprano; Kai Wessel (I - solo), Pascal Bertin (II - solo), Daniel Lager (I - ripieno), Hugo Naessens (II - ripieno), alto; Charles Daniels (I - solo), Marcel Beekman (I - solo), Simon Wall (I - ripieno), Adrian Lowe (II - ripieno), tenor; Stephan MacLeod (I - Jesus, solo), Peter Harvey (II - solo), Bas Ramselaar (I - ripieno), Matthew Baker (II - ripieno), bass

The Netherlands Bach Society was founded in 1922 and since then every year - with two exceptions: 1928 and 1945 - Bach's St Matthew Passion was performed. In 1983 a revolutionary decision was taken: the St Matthew Passion was going to be performed with period instruments, for which purpose the Bach Society founded its own baroque orchestra. The decision was taken by the Society's Board, against the wishes of the long-standing conductor, Charles de Wolff, who resigned from his post.
In 2005 another 'revolutionary' decision took place: the choir was disbanded as the present conductor, Jos van Veldhoven, had come to the conviction that the results of the research of musicologists like Joshua Rifkin that Bach's vocal works were usually performed with one voice per part, were such that they couldn't be ignored any longer. In 2006 the St Matthew Passion was going to be performed this way for the first time. In this case each choir contained of 8 singers, 4 to sing the solo parts - including the part of Jesus - and 4 'ripieno singers' who joined them in the choruses and chorales and the turbae. Some of them also sang the smaller solo parts (Judas, Peter etc). Only the tenor who interpreted the part of the Evangelist didn't participate in the tutti sections.

The decision met with some scepticism. Would the drama of the choruses be realised by an ensemble this small? And would an ensemble of this size be able to fill a large modern concert hall? And would all the singers involved be able to sing the solo parts appropriately and to participate in the performance of the choruses and chorales? My answer to these questions is affirmative. There were reasons for criticism, but certainly not because of the concept of one-voice-per-part.

One of the most enjoyable things in this performance was the absence of singers with too much vibrato. Only Anne Grimm used a little too much in her aria, but in the choruses I didn't notice any negative effect from that. Otherwise there was an admirable unity in the way of singing by all participants, and in general they were all able to sing not only their solo parts appropriately but also to blend with each other in the choruses and chorales.
Stephan MacLeod definitely had the largest workload, as he sang the part of Jesus and the bass arias in the first choir and in addition had to sing in the tutti as well. He did so admirably, which did pleasantly surprise me, as I haven't always been enthusiastic about his singing. In the part of Jesus he found the right amount of passion and authority, and sang the arias with great sensitivity. Disappointing was Peter Harvey: I am sorry to say that I don't understand why ensembles and conductors invite him so regularly for their performances, as I have never heard anything remotely interesting from him. This performance was no exception.
The tenors haven't that much to do: just one recitative and aria each. The performances were very different: Charles Daniels, who some years ago performed the role of the Evangelist quite brilliantly, sang his part with great expression, whereas Marcel Beekman seemingly confused expression with screaming in his aria 'Geduld!'.
It was good to hear Kai Wessel once again, as the music world seems to talk only about the likes of Andreas Scholl. I have to say that in this repertoire I prefer Kai Wessel by far, as he gave a very moving performance of 'Buß und Reu', in which the pain about man's sins got across very strongly. In his other arias he was just as impressive. Pascal Bertin gave a solid performance of his single aria.
As I already said Anne Grimm used a little too much vibrato in her aria 'Blute nur'. There was also a lack of differentiation between good and bad notes and the articulation wasn't as sharp as one would wish. Susanne Rydén, on the other hand, demonstrated these qualities in abundance in her recitatives and arias. I in particular liked her sharp articulation in the recitatives which precede the arias, as well as her almost boy-like sound. Her performance of 'Aus Liebe' was very moving.
Lastly: Nico van der Meel in the part of the Evangelist. No worries here about articulation or emphasizing the important words and syllables. Every word was clearly understandable, and he showed once again that he is one of the best interpreters of this part. But I found his reading a little artificial: I had preferred a more natural and flowing way of telling the story. But this was also the side-effect of a slowish tempo of the recitatives, which must have been the decision of the conductor.

This leads to some observations in regard to the performance as a whole. Some aspects of the interpretation puzzled me, in particular the performance of the chorales. Not only did I find them too slow, but there was too much legato singing and there were also some strange rallentandi and in some cases the last note was held rather long. It seems to me these as well as the piano singing of some chorales have more to do with a romantic, almost sentimental Bach-interpretation than baroque rhetorics.
In general I missed some sharp edges in this performance, both in the vocal and instrumental parts. I hasten to add that all players did a very good job, in the tutti as well as in the obbligato parts.

Whatever one may think about the historical arguments in favour of an interpretation with one voice per part, this performance practice turned out to be a winner from a strictly musical point of view. Gone were the wobbly voices we have sometimes heard in the past, gone was the gap between soli and tutti, and for the first time the two vocal and instrumental choirs were consistently split.
It will be interesting to see how things will go from here.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

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