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14.4.06

Rilling, with a Message from Bach

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion,
Rilling

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Richter

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Harnoncourt III

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Herreweghe II

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion ,
Suzuki

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Koopman II
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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Karajan, live 1950 (w/Ferrier)

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Brüggen

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Gardiner

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, McCreesh

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Mengelberg

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion, Karajan II
Helmuth Rilling is one of the great Bach conductors of our time, on par with fellow John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Masaaki Suzuki, Ton Koopman, and Philippe Herreweghe. He is, next to Pieter Jan Leusink (Brilliant), the only conductor to have recorded and issued the complete Bach cantatas (Harnoncourt’s set is partly conducted by Gustav Leonhardt, Gardiner has recorded all, but not yet issued – the 6th volume on SDG (no.19) was just released last week – Suzuki and Koopman have not quite finished their traversal yet). Unlike the aforementioned, Rilling is not married to the idea of performing Bach on original instruments, although his performances are informed by the Baroque style. In a way, Rilling is the continuation of what Karl Richter started: modern performances of Bach, trimmed of all the excess of the earlier part of the 20th century. The proof is in the pudding – in the form of the St. Matthew’s Passion – and the National Symphony Orchestra, the UMD Concert Choir, and the Children’s Chorus of Washington served that pudding last night (and will again, today at 1:30PM and tomorrow at 8PM) under Rilling’s experienced guidance.

Written for Good Friday, the Matthäus Passion – the Passion according to St. Matthew – is the greatest of Bach’s works; at the very least literally. It is, like few other works of art, one of the pillars of Western civilization and was never thought off as any less for the last 180 years in which it has been performed on a regular basis. If the NSO played this work only for the third time in its history (two performances in April of 1968 were the previous outings), there are fortunately other organizations in D.C. that will fill the gap. Last year it was a lovely performance by the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

If the performance last year was extraordinarily moving and featured a well-honed choir, Rilling and the NSO offered a better orchestral contribution and better soloists. The University of Maryland choir, too, was very fine – but offered a few weak spots. “S’s” and “t’s” were hissing noisily, the balance of the second choir was often less than ideal. Accentuated phrases burst forth from them that often startled the listener. Much of that was made up for with the exciting back and forth between the two choirs – set up on the left and right of the stage, facing each other. When they came to screaming “Barabas” they made an exquisite, appropriately unholy noise; the fast crescendo at “Was gehet uns das an?” was impressive, too.

The Bach passions can center around the Evangelist, who does the lion’s share of the work, or shift to Jesus (not entirely inappropriate, either, come to think of it) when the latter is more outstanding than the former. With the notable Christian Gerhaher as Jesus, that’s exactly what happened. Strong, mature, pleasant, full of character – his was an outstanding performance. He was, in more than one way, to Jesus what Peter Schreier was to the Evangelist – and equally put his stamp on the performance, equally dominates the memory of the night. This is not to say that Lotha Odinius’s Evangelist was sub-par – far from it. Although not exactly stentorian, he delivered a felt performance that only got better the more he sang. His voice is less strong in the upper registers but compensated with a nicely ringing middle and lower register. Bass Georg Zappenfeld did well as Judas, Pilate, Peter, Second Priest et al., especially taking to “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” the work’s last aria. In timbre he was surprisingly close to Mr. Odinius, ever nimble, solid, never roaring. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen (a.k.a. Tom Allen) showed a large, operatic voice as the second priest and in a few arias.

Kate RoyalIngeborg Danz’s contralto did not impress, it convinced. Neither a big voice nor at all flashy or (in the literal sense) outstanding, she seemed very pleasing at first; reminding of a Lieder singer’s voice like Gerhaher (both are renowned in that field). But by “Können Tränen meiner Wangen…” the effortless beauty of her singing made clear why she is such a cherished and sought-after Bach singer. Quite different in appeal – but no less so – was the strikingly beautiful Kate Royal, who gave her U.S. debut in this performance. With her hair in a tight bun, the broad shoulders set against a beautifully elegant, unadorned dress she was half Pilate’s Wife, half ck model. She has some power in her voice but also plenty of light and clearness. One hopes it won’t darken too much: right now it’s Heidi Grant Murphyesque with more juice… making her an ideal Mahler 4th candidate, for example.

The orchestra contributed greatly to this clean, smooth performance. From the very brisk beginning to the end they played well, even if a few soloists got less secure as the Passion wound down. The opening of the second part, “Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin,” was a bit bumpy, the viola da gamba solo at “Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” went awry for a while. Nurit Bar-Josef’s incandescent solo before “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen” (only a few tiny insecurities) was a delight. The only thing that did not please were the many empty seats in the Kennedy Center. Perhaps the residents of Washington don’t know that attendance will wash them free of their grave sins (God knows most in this town need a double helping of that)? Hearing some of the finest music composed en route, there must be hope that more people find their way to the Kennedy Center for the remaining performances.