Van Zweden, Dallas Symphony Orchestra & Chorus soar with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”

Fri Mar 31, 2017 at 3:01 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

“Christ of St. John on the Cross.” Salvador Dali, 1951.

The loudest applause during the ovations Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center rang out when conductor Jaap van Zweden faced the audience and held up the score of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For, even with an overwhelmingly superb performance by soloists, orchestra, chorus, and conductor, the sheer multifaceted power of this monument of human culture remained the focus of the concert.

Masterpiece though it is, this eighteenth-century setting of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus provides ample challenge for 21st-century performers who seek to transfer it from the ancient stone churches of Bach’s day to the modern concert hall. Within the strictures of limited resources and traditional Lutheran theology, however, Bach clearly reached for a monumental, universal effect, specifying double chorus and orchestra and exploring the emotional interplay of the severe hymnody of his time with gripping operatic drama.

A modern performance must, therefore, communicate both the grandeur of Bach’s vision while preserving the sense of austerity and faith of the culture in which the work originated.

Van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus managed all of that magnificently. The somewhat reduced orchestra and chorus, playing with an appropriate lightness and transparency of tone—in contrast to the richness they apply to a score of Mahler or Brahms—allowed the focus the profound sorrow contained in this music to emerge clearly.

The chorus, prepared by Joshua Habermann, likewise achieved a transparent, radiant quality that enabled stunningly powerful moments—as, for instance, in the jolting shift from the angry, jeering mob to the reflective penitence of an ensuing chorale.

The soloists were equally powerful throughout the evening; one suspects that Bach, in his small town, may have been writing for imagined rather than real vocalists, but this cast beautifully met the technical, emotional, and intellectual challenges the composer threw in their direction.

The most significant task among the soloists falls to the Evangelist, who narrates the story in recitative; tenor James Gilchrist fulfilled this role with chilling drama, evoking the sense of an early follower of Jesus, traveling the ancient world, emphatically and passionately telling his story to anyone who would listen.

Baritone Matthias Goerne brought a dark, quasi-bass quality to the role of Christus; soprano Valentina Farcas, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, tenor Werner Güra, and bass-baritone Philippe Sly, each brought intense drama and convincing reflection to the various brief roles and commentary arias they sang.

Van Zweden moved all of this forward with fairly brisk tempos, enlivening the dramatic portions while never undermining the depth of the reflective passages. Although the obvious climax of the work arrives at the moment of the death of Jesus, van Zweden—at least to this listener—found an equally significant climax in the calming shift to B-flat major and the bass aria “Mache dich, mein Herze” (“Make ready, my heart”), in which we are implored to make ourselves worthy of the sacrifice.

On the surface, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a work dealing with a specific theology of eighteenth-century northern German Lutheranism. However, through Bach’s craft, inspiration, and genius, that somewhat parochial view expands to embrace all humankind in its struggle to transcend earthly cruelty and achieve redemption. Van Zweden and his assembled forces present us with a performance that reminds us not only of the greatness of Bach, but of the possibilities of self-aware, reflective humanity.

The concert will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Meyerson Symphony Center.; 214-692-0203.

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