CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 6 APRIL 2006
Johann Sebastian Bach: Matthäuspassion [St. Matthew Passion], BWV 244. (Christoph Strehl, Evangelist; Christian Gerhaher, Jesus, Pilate, Chief Priest; Malin Hartelius, sop.; Bernarda Fink, m-s.; Thomas Glenn, ten.; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
It might have been the stuff of any conductor's nightmare. He is young; has, in fact, just entered his twentieth year. The evening's program is a challenging one: the revival of a lengthy, ambitious work by a composer widely dismissed as old-fashioned. He dons his jacket, walks to the podium amid the audience's applause, and there, sitting in front of him, is the wrong music. Fortunately, Felix Mendelssohn was not just any conductor. Not only did he proceed to conduct Bach's St. Matthew Passion from memory—he dutifully turned the pages of the score in front of him at appropriate intervals, lest the musicians realize his predicament and lose confidence.
A hundred and seventy-some years later, Franz Welser-Möst needn't fear a loss of confidence: this weekend's performances of the St. Matthew Passion conclude a dynamic run of Cleveland Orchestra concerts. And yet, compared with the programs of the previous three weeks, Welser Möst's Bach sounds unexpectedly reserved. One reason is that he keeps the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus on a decidedly short leash. At times the effect seems carefully premeditated. In the score's number 19, a chorale, its melody heard earlier in the work, intrudes upon the solo tenor's meditations on Gethsemane. On Thursday evening the choral interjections sounded almost bodiless. But as the same forces continued into the succeeding number and the chorus sang of sleep enfolding humankind's sins, the emotional logic became clear. Those muffled bars for chorus evoked an interwoven knot of fatigue, grief, hopelessness, resignation, and, ultimately, redemption. At other times, though, Welser Möst's subdued choral forces simply seemed anemic. In the work's opening number, for example, the first chorus' answers to its counterpart's insistent questions were barely audible.
Luckily, Welser-Möst had an accomplished cast of solo vocalists to enliven the performance. Soprano Malin Hartelius deftly navigated the work's complexities. In the aria "Blute nur, du liebes Herz!" she managed an effortless transition between the affliction implied by that opening line and the rather creepy image that succeeds it: Judas as a nursing baby that metamorphoses into a poisonous snake. Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink's aria "Können Tränen meiner Wangen" was one of the evening's highlights—beautifully sung, with Welser-Möst leading a finely rhythmic and detailed accompaniment. Tenor Thomas Glenn sounded a bit strained in Part One, though his voice appeared to settle in after intermission. Christoph Strehl was a clear voiced and poised Evangelist.
It was baritone Christian Gerhaher, though, who saved the day. Despite being himself "slightly indisposed"—so a program insert noted—he not only sang his scheduled role as Jesus, but also stepped into the shoes of an even worse-off Olaf Bär. Just one recitative and one aria were cut as a result, and Gerhaher's performance in the remainder was entirely convincing. It is, mind you, a little unusual to see the same singer cast as, simultaneously, Jesus, Pilate, and the Chief Priest, and thus in the odd situation of having to interrogate himself. It gives a new meaning to the famous words of Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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