Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday – Bach's Saint Matthew Passion from Munich

This performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is available for viewing (and listening) on Arte Live for about 45 more days. The Evangelist, tenor Julian Prégardien has a notable pedigree: he's the son of tenor Christoph Prégardien. He has inherited his father's clear light voice and sensitivity to the sung texts; he's an engaging and effective narrator. Bass Karl-Magnus Fredriksson sings the role of Jesus, and he sounds appropriately full-voiced and Christ-like. About the only think I would recommend to enhance their performances is complete memorization of their roles.
I have seen/participated in performances of the St. Matt in which both Jesus and the Evangelist sing their parts from memory. While this is optimal for audience engagement, it’s not always practical or possible. In this performance they've struck an effective compromise. Both singers have music stands set discreetly low and to one side. This allows them to merely glance down now and then, but most of the time, they are able to give the audience eye-contact. (Herr Prégardien does somewhat better than Herr Fredriksson in this regard.) Getting that book out of the way makes such a difference.

Traditionally the Evangelist and Jesus singers are supplemented by four or more “aria” soloists; in this case there are four: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Gerhild Romberger, mezzo-soprano; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; and Michael Nagy, baritone. These four are more book-bound than the “leads,” with varying degrees of effective communication. (Tenor and baritone are at the upper range of effectiveness; soprano and mezzo not quite as engaging.) The men have just the right lightness of voice I seek in a Bach performance—light, but not flimsy. The women have heavier voices than I expected, but once the surprise wore off, I found them pleasant; however, I enjoyed listening to them more than watching (books, books, books, ladies!)

My first exposure to this massive work was as a child, maybe 10 years old, being dragged to a dress rehearsal in which my parents were both singing (in the choruses). I loved the great opening chorus with three choirs—mesmerizing! Beyond that, however my main impression was that this piece would never end. Subsequently, I learned to love it in manageable chunks (one or two LP sides at a time: Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s groundbreaking recording.) It still seems really long, though.

Then I sat through Parsifal. In many ways they are similar events. And I say event on purpose. Attending a live performance of the St. Matthew Passion or Parsifal isn’t just attending a concert or an opera. It takes more of a commitment. Both works are slow moving (though the Passion story has more intrinsic drama than Parsifal) and can be enveloping, if you let them. You need to be willing to enter into an alternate time frame. If you let yourself slow down enough to give into it, the work can be an overwhelming experience. I am not talking religious or spiritual engagement necessarily, though it could be that, too.

Well, as my Mom would say, "That’ s enough about that!" I have more thoughts about Bach, Parsifal, and soloists in oratorio settings. But right now you should be listening, not reading. 

The Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, Concerto Köln and the Regensburger Domspatzen (boys choir) presented this program in February 2013 in the Munich Herkulessaal under the firm, but elegant and unobtrusive direction of Peter Dijkstra. Take some time to listen—and watch—at least part of this beautiful performance. There are no subtitles, but it's pretty easy to find the text and translation online.         


  1. I wonder how often that happens, that children of opera singers inherit one or the other parent's vocal talents? Having a good voice plus a sense for the internal logic of music plus dramatic skill seems to be such a one-in-ten-thousand sort of thing.

    1. It does seem unlikely to happen that often. Surely many singers are offspring of singers. Christa Ludwig, for example (I am reading her memoirs right now) of course we can only take her word for how well her parents sang, though her father did sing at the Met.


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