While the Los Angeles Philharmonic was introducing the Lincoln Center crowd to John Adams’ new biblical account, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, many New York City ensembles chose to move forward traditional Eastertime programming. Chief among them was Thursday night’s pairing of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the venerable Musica Sacra, presenting Bach’s beloved and perennial St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. Under the direction of Budapest Festival Orchestra conductor Iván Fischer, the ensembles presented a robust—if, at times, uneven—presentation of the choral masterwork.
Riding the critical high of last year’s innovative presentation of the Mozart Requiem—a performance that brilliantly interspersed the chorus and soloists with members of the orchestra—Fischer also incorporated some avant-garde stage settings into the Bach: separating the two orchestras by a considerable distance (calling to mind Moses’ parting the seas), and allowing both singers and soloists to engage the audience while traversing various segments of the stage.
For a three-hour work, such stage elements are welcome, adding a dimension of drama to an otherwise operatic textual treatment. As opposed to the diverse sound world of the Mass in B minor, the Passion can become staid at times, relying on a large amount of recitative and narration from the Evangelist to account for the many twists and turns in the story. As the Evangelist, John Tessier gave a strict account of the central role, delivering very little in terms of vocal nuance or color, even as the tragic elements quickly unfolded around him. Luckily, the mighty voice of Hanno Müller-Brachmann was captivating throughout, delivering vivid accounts of Jesus, Judas, Peter, and Pilate.
The orchestra was voiced well throughout the work, relying on the rich use of flutes, oboe d’amours, and organs that rose above the string bodies. And despite some inarticulate entrances and lost soprano voices in the opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr Töchter,” Musica Sacra was as strong as always—adding a sense of deep reverence to the many chorales conveying both fire and brimstone (“Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken”) and eternal peace (“Wir setzen uns mit Thränen nieder”).
Perhaps the only misfortune of the evening was the location of the performance: While many would promote Carnegie Hall as a sacred space and an altar to music, Bach’s devotional setting and Lutheran restraint lost some of its much-needed intimacy in the large, gilded hall. Stern Auditorium’s blank canvas of a back wall left the stage feeling empty, and one couldn’t help but think that splendid moments like Müller-Brachmann’s chilling delivery of “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” would have been all the more effective if complemented by stained glass, stone naves, and a crucifix hanging high above.