Review: A ‘St. Matthew Passion’ through another’s vision

“After decades of performers tirelessly homing in on the kernel of any Bach masterpiece, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia revisited a wide-lens view of the St. Matthew Passion on Sunday – specifically, the 1841 Leipzig edition adapted and conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, who helped the world realize how great Bach was.

The concert was the U.S. premiere of that edition (and one that was to feature star bassist Eric Owens, who was sidelined by a sinus infection) that turned into a reenvisioning of the piece with cuts, tweaks, and adult vocal soloists singing music written for children’s choir. The more distinctive difference from big-chorus Bach that was common in the 1950s and ’60s was the unity Mendelssohn imposed on Bach.

In his own symphonic works, Mendelssohn knit movements together into a continuous stream of music. And in this version of the St. Matthew Passion, choruses, arias and ariosos meld with recitatives, which are heard without the usual keyboard accompaniment but share the same sonic bedrock of lower string instruments. The effect suited the “Tenebrae” qualities of Christ’s crucifixion with the melancholic overtones of French baroque viola da gamba music of Sainte-Colombe. The hand of Mendelssohn was also heavy in post-crucifixion recitatives, with nervous string tremolos straight out of his Piano Concerto No. 1.

The corps of 200 singers and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia instrumentalists under Alan Harler sounded even larger in the towering Girard College Chapel, which will look great in the documentary film being made about the project, and whose warm acoustic was fine for overall effect but perhaps problematic for coordination. Parts where the Mendelssohn Club was likely to be at its best sometimes lost the train of musical thought. However, the “Be near me, Lord, when dying,” sung after Christ’s death, was sung with beautiful color and moving restraint.

Susanna Phillips was the best soloist, in a high-inspiration duet with superb concertmistress Emilie-Anne Gendron. She always found the right contour for any phrase’s combination of vocal line and words, and sang with a mid-weight tone that was perfect for navigating details but also carried amid larger forces. Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson seems near the end of her career with much to enjoy in the lower range but challenges elsewhere. Tenor Yusuke Fujii had a glass ceiling in his upper range, lacking the kind of freedom to accomplish what much of his role demanded. Curtis Institute student Andrew Bogard stepped in for Owens with a strong personality and distinctive sound; though he’s still getting Bach’s idiom in his bones, keep your eye out for him.

The larger question asked by the performance is this: Must one hear everything in order to feel everything? No. Even the notes buried by the acoustic have subliminal impact. But feelings are going to be different. The passion of Christ was unusually ritualistic and symbolic, if only because so many people were involved in the storytelling – good for special occasions like this but not the optimum solution.
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