For all the earnest ministrations of the period-performance brigade, I doubt you could find a presentation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion’more authentic in certain particulars than the one an overflowing Symphony Hall applauded on Friday.
This was Leipzig brought to its twin city, with the choristers of Bach’s own church (trebles in their surprisingly unkitsch sailor suits) and the venerable Leipzig Gewandhausorchester conducted by Bach’s 16th successor as Cantor of St Thomas’s, Georg Christoph Biller.
Biller brought a decidedly functional, narrative liturgical approach to this reading. Tempi were brisk, thereby bringing out the dance context behind so many of the movements (as well as accentuating the drama when choruses, recitatives and solos cut into each other so brusquely as the crucifixion approaches). No room for sentimentality here (my eyes remained dry as the beautiful evening sequence led us to the great concluding chorus), but plenty to appreciate in terms of musical values.
The orchestra played with a lightness and clarity not always heard from them in the past, with minimum vibrato in the strings, and some period woodwind instruments (and a sensible realisation of the continuo part – that silly crowing cock in the harpsichord seems finally to have been shot).
There was wonderful projection and clarity of both diction and texture from the Thomanenchor, their voices remarkably mature for such young people.
Of the excellent soloists, particularly outstanding were the dramatic Evangelist of Martin Petzold, reacting to events as though representing the Common Man, Stefan Kahle’s remarkable alto, and the expressive soprano of Ute Selbig (we won’t mention her inappropriate concert-dress).
And the purists will tick off on their clip-boards the number of missed opportunities for added ornamentation.