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A Bach masterpiece, uncommonly well served

Monica Huggett, artistic director of Portland Baroque Orchestra Credit: PBO

Sunday afternoon (March 20), one day shy of Bach’s birth 326 years ago, the Portland Baroque Orchestra, led from the front desk of the violins by the English violinist and conductor Monica Huggett, gave a musically accomplished and dramatically powerful performance at Town Hall Seattle of the composer’s “Passion According to St. John.” Working with them were singers from the Canadian group Les Voix Baroques and, also from Portland, Cappella Romana.

The event was part the Early Music Guild’s current season and also a highlight of the American Handel Society’s Handel Festival in Seattle. We are in the season of Lent, when these Passions were performed. Bach and Handel were born in the same year, 1685. They knew of and admired each other though never quite met, so its timing was apposite in every way you can think of.

I make no bones about my own conviction that Bach is the supreme genius of Western music so far, and perhaps even of Western civilization, and that his two main surviving settings of the Christian Passion are amongst his very greatest works. No excuse is needed for programming these works at any time of year, even though the long tradition of giving them in the run up to Easter started with their first performances in Leipzig in the 1720s and such musical celebrations of the Passion (Christ’s suffering and crucifixion) had roots going even further back into the late middle ages.

For many years in London the English Bach Choir has given annual performances of the “St. Matthew Passion” in Easter week. It’s a long time since I attended one, but I recall an audience predominantly religious rather than musical who treated the occasion as part of their observance of Holy Week rather than “going to a concert.” In that sense these London performances were “authentic” even if their style of execution — a large chorus and orchestra, little attempt at “period” style — was not: and the slow tempi and heavy textures gave the occasions a liturgical feel.

In recent years tastes and expectations have changed. You can still find church performances of the Bach Passions — there is for example to be a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” on April 17 at Seattle’s First Free Methodist Church — but more frequently you find a more open style of performance, sometimes with Baroque instruments and a period style of execution with faster tempi and lighter textures. That can illuminate the music, revealing its richness and diversity of texture and effect, though the danger is that it can underplay its drama and astonishingly explicit  and deep emotionalism and deprive it of the sense of community involvement that lies at its heart.

What we had in the Portland Baroque’s performance yesterday bridged these two approaches. With relatively small forces — around 12 instrumentalists and the same number of singers —  the textures were light and clear. In the wonderfully complex dramatic opening chorus of supplication, grief, and praise, “Herr, unser Herrscher,” for example, it was easy to hear the pulsating grief-ridden bass, the pungent descending lines in the oboes, the agitated string figurations, and the impassioned exclamations of the chorus. In the chorales and narrative choruses, the singers and instruments were uncommonly well balanced.

In the excellent program book, Monica Huggett said that, by using the relatively small and carefully balanced choral and instrumental forces, she hoped “to achieve the grandeur of the big choruses without overwhelming the chamber-like quality of the arias.” I would not have minded a handful more singers in the more dramatic choruses, but overall she did achieve her aim.

In this she was much helped by the singers’ excellent diction and projection, as well as their deep involvement in the drama. The Roman soldiers’ derisive mocking of Christ’s supposed claim to be King of the Jews in the chorus “Sei gegrüsset, lieber Jüdenkönig” came across vividly, for example; as did the equally impressive musical pacing and verbal pointing of the meditative chorales.

Tempi were generally fast and a sense of urgency dominated the performance.  In one or two of the arias — notably the soprano’s “Ich folge dir gleichenfalls”  — there was an uneasy sense of rush, but generally there was a strong cumulative dramatic power, to which Charles Daniels’ Evangelist made a notable contribution. His delivery of the extraordinarily chromatic and desolate depiction of Simon Peter’s grief at his denial of Christ had great power. The other soloists, also drawn from the chorus, contributed to equal effect. The solo violone player in the aria for Bass and chorus “Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen” deserves special mention.

Before yesterday’s performance Huggett and her colleagues had given the work in Portland, and had done a studio recording for issue later this year. We therefore had the benefit of a fully rehearsed and confident performance, as well as a memorably powerful and moving interpretation of this great masterpiece. How lucky we are.

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