The late Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter invited a select circle of friends to his home every year to listen to a full-length, three-hour recording of the St. Matthew Passion.
If they fidgeted, he kicked them out. If they spoke, they were never invited back to Richter’s house at all. (No word on whether bathroom breaks were permitted.) For that span, his living room became a church.
We can’t listen to this piece the same way today, not with cell phones going off in Belk Theater and a couple of dozen people arriving late. (One guy in front of me started to video the show with his camera phone.)
But how are we to absorb J.S. Bach’s take on the persecution and execution of Christ? He tells a holy story (from the Gospel of St. Matthew, obviously) through uplifting music, yet it’s presented now in concert halls, and Scott Allen Jarrett has said it’s the closest thing to an opera that Bach wrote.
That’s how conductor Jarrett, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Oratorio Singers of Charlotte did it at Belk Theater – not in the sense of staging it, but presenting it as a vivid drama. He sustained that feeling over three hours and 10 minutes (including intermission), a remarkable feat for a work that never moves faster than mid-tempo. (People who don’t love Bach will find the piece hard to sit through.)
The performance had two particular assets. One was Jarrett’s springy rhythms and brisk but unrushed speeds, to which the Oratorio Singers responded consistently. The other was the riveting Evangelist of Nicholas Phan: ardent and intense, sometimes tender and sometimes explosive.
Bach wrote passions for each of the four famous gospels, though we don’t have complete ones based on Mark or Luke. (I’ve heard reconstructions, which aren’t in the same class as the ones from Matthew and John.)
The St. Matthew has the most sheerly beautiful music, from the alto solo “Have mercy, o God” (a favorite of Marian Anderson’s) to the choral melody “O sacred head, now wounded” (which Paul Simon swiped for “American Tune”). At the same time, arias repeat melodies at length, and the choruses start to blend in the ear.
That’s especially true when the singers perform in German and the minuscule English translation in the program is difficult to follow. Stick your face in it to keep up, and you miss watching the singers. Look to the stage awhile, and you may not find your place in the program again. (The text doesn’t explain who’s singing or relate the translation to the numbers in the score.)
The evangelist serves as a narrator, with Jesus (dignified Nathan Berg) speaking for himself. The arias and choruses comment on that action without advancing it; luckily, the two soloists who had the most to do in that vein were always welcome.
You may remember bass Dashon Burton from a ringing contribution to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony here in May. Once I got used to Reginald Mobley’s countertenor – I always prefer an alto – I appreciated his expressive, flexible voice.
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