Ionarts-at-Large: Easter-Bach in Oslo - Manze's 'Matthew Passion Transcribed for Orchestra and Chorus'
It’s not a proper Easter for me without at least one Parsifal and/or Matthew Passion, and this year I got my fix in Oslo, where the Philharmonic performed the Matthew Passion under Andrew Manze. Or, as Manze suggested during a charming conversation earlier that day, “we’re actually doing the Matthew Passion transcribed for Orchestra and Chorus… which is in effect what the Matthew Passion has become nowadays. Bach wrote it for eight singers, two groups of four. And all the eight have a solo aria, but they also sing all the chorus parts. Well, what we call the “chorus”, anyways. Today we’ve got a chorus of 90 out there; forty-five here and forty-five there. And we brought soloists to sing the arias. So it couldn’t be more different from his original conception. What we are doing today is closer to Stokowski than it is to Bach. Not that that’s a bad thing… it’s fun, it’s great. But it’s a very different thing. The Oslo Philharmonic would never set [a ‘chamber version’] up, of course. Understandably they want a piece for orchestra and choir, and that’s what we shall get tonight.”
With its gently flexible pulse, calm enough to see the amassed musical forces safely through the opening, Manze’s ‘Matthew Passion transcribed for Orchestra and Chorus’ got off to a fine start at the Philharmonic Hall. Compared to two groups of four or eight singers shouting at each other in the opening back-and-forth, the Q&A of the two choruses had the consistency of toffee, but it was genial and sufficiently tear-inducing to those so inclined. Altogether it was performance that offered a lot to nitpick if one cared to nitpick (slow and occasionally rough orchestral patches, for example), but it was also a loving, caringly executed one, that did the beauty of Bach full justice.
On the nitpick side might have been the singers, foremost bass Håvard Stensvold, whose Judas slid up the notes and promised to be a liability—further undermined by his somewhat too-rich impersonation of his characters. But at least his vocal performance considerably improved by the time he got to the aria “Gerne will ich mich bequemen…” – except for when he didn’t quite hit the notes which even belting them out couldn’t quite cover. Soprano Ditte H. Andersen was perfectly fine when she turned her high-powered vibrato off, as she did in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” and she blended particularly well with even-voiced mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland. Tenor Andrew Staple, the Evangelist, was most convincing in the few really gutsy piano passages he dare threw in while best performance of the evening came from baritone Johannes Weisser’s Jesus, whose sonorously pleasant oratorio voice was literally outstanding. Not entirely inappropriate, given the subject.