Friday, April 3, 2009

J.S.Bach St. Matthew Passion, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra

J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 was composed in Leipzig in 1727. The composer’s longest work, it calls for vocal- and instrumental soloists, two choirs and two orchestras, and reflects Bach’s deeply religious conviction. In addition to texts from chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, there are lyrical, soul-searching sections written by Bach’s friend Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764) (“Picander” was his pseudonym) and these add to the devotional aspect of the work. Since Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, its rich canvas and personal expression have attracted the concert-going public to experience its beauty and emotional impact again and again; the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it, conducted by its home conductor Leon Botstein, April 1 in Jerusalem, was no exception, with the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre packed to capacity. People were genuinely curious to hear Botstein’s reading of this monumental work.

Following his informal, informative pre-concert discussion of the work, Leon Botstein conducted and coordinated his large group of musicians in a performance of precision and lush musical soundscape. A labor of love, I watched Botstein mouthing almost every word as he conducted (not using a baton.) In the hands of a classical orchestra, this was not a Bach performance on historical instruments; however, there were just a few Baroque-oriented timbres: the inclusion, for example, of the viola da gamba (Amit Tiefenbrunn) in the strings and in obbligato roles was effective and poignant. The work, altogether, has many beautiful instrumental solos and duets and these, always coming down to a more intimate form of expression, were handled sensitively by orchestra members. The two choirs taking part – the New Vocal Ensemble and the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, both trained by Yuval Ben-Ozer - added performance that was competent and clean, their diction good and their phrasing finely chiseled. Their superbly blended choral sound was a feast to the ears, whether in the comforting message of the chorales or in the vehement outbursts of the angry mob. Small solos, sung by choir members, were of a high quality.

Israeli mezzo-soprano, Rachel Frenkel, has fine vocal technique and interesting depth to her voice. Claire Meghnagi showed taste, color and vocal ease; she seemed to grow into the work as it progressed. German-born tenor Christian Baumgaertel was powerful and involved. Israeli baritone Gabriel Lowenheim’s singing is warm, full and rich; he was communicative and very much a part of the immediacy of the dramatic moment. Estonian bass Uku Joller was well cast as Jesus, his presence commanding, his voice large and stable with a fine mix of depth and lights; and he sang with conviction. German tenor Immo Schroeder, as the Evangelist, was brilliant in his narration. Using the whole spectrum of his voice, he was convincing and articulate; his dramatic timing, his well-sculpted phrases, his depth of emotion, his humility and the manner in which he addressed each and every nuance of the written text were moving, indeed, memorable.

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