Every Holy Week for the past six years, I've listened to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 2001 Teldec recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, one of the towering works of the repertoire. But, until Thursday night's performance by the New York Philharmonic, I had never had the opportunity to hear the Passion performed live. (If that wasn't reason enough, it was also the 323rd anniversary of Bach's birth.)
Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, where it was first performed on Good Friday in 1727. It lasts nearly three-and-a-half hours in performance and employs huge forces: double chorus, double orchestra, organ, ten soloists. It was criticized at the time for being too "theatrical" - owing largely to the extra-scriptural poetry by Picander - and was forgotten for nearly 100 years until Felix Mendelssohn staged a revival performance in 1829. It was soon recognized as a masterpiece, and has been performed regularly ever since.
The Philharmonic performance was led by former NYP Music Director Kurt Masur, 81, who grew up with this work during his 26 years as the Kappellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (which, incidentally, is almost the same length as Bach's own tenure in Leipzig.) Masur clearly holds a deep affection for the Passion, having spent a lifetime drilling its seeimgly-limitless depths. He spoke about the work's meaning in the program notes:
"Bach is making a profound statement about his faith, about suffering and betrayal, and about forgiveness. As a musician, you have to try to transport it from Bach's time to our time. And you achieve that through understanding its spirit."
On my recording of the Passion, the lead role of Jesus is sung by German baritone Matthias Goerne. His voice is immediately identifiable: warm, rich, powerful. Goerne was onstage Thursday night, and at first I was concerned he'd be swallowed whole by the notorious acoustics of Avery Fisher. Not to worry: his soaring, passionate baritone penetrated all the way up to my seat in the second tier. Goerne may be under the Passion's spell even more than Masur: he looked at the score only occasionally, and was air conducting whenever he wasn't singing.
No less impressive was James Taylor, who sang the role of the Evangelist in a reedy tenor that was both direct and vulnerable. Other standouts included alto Anna Larsson and bass-baritone David Pittsinger, who nailed the climactic aria "Mache Dich," one of the greatest in all of music.
The Philharmonic generally played well, though not without some rough patches. (Personally, I could have done without concertmaster Glenn Dicterow's preening solo in No. 39.) They were joined by the young Westminster Choir and the American Boychoir, both excellent.
During curtain calls, Masur made his way around the orchestra, greeting the principals with familiar embraces. Clearly, the admiration was mutual, which leaves this patron perplexed as to why Masur is not still Music Director. Oh, that's right, because the administrators at the time didn't like his non-schmoozing nature and told him to get out. Brilliant.
There is one final performance of the St. Matthew Passion tonight at 8pm at Avery Fisher Hall. Go if you can.