Chicago Chorale delivers a memorable “St. Matthew Passion”

Mon Mar 30, 2015 at 12:43 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Sunday at Rockefeller Chapel. File photo: Jasmine Kwong

Any shortlist of the crowning achievements of Western music must include Bach’s St. Matthew Passion near the top. Bach’s mammoth setting of Martin Luther’s German translation of chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew was the vehicle with which Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced the composer’s music at an 1829 performance in Berlin. The work and the depth of Bach’s music have been the subject of scholarship and performance ever since.

The Chicago Chorale’s performance of Bach’s creation Sunday at Rockefeller Chapel lived up to the work’s hallowed place both in history and in listeners’ hearts.

From the opening chorus (“Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen”) both the Chorale and the period-instrument ensemble achieved a dark, somber blend through meticulously calibrated balance and admirable intonation. Under conductor and artistic director Bruce Tammen, the double chorus’s poignant invitation to join them in lamentation set the tone for the afternoon (and early evening), joined by an able treble choir directed by Andrew Sons from the Rockefeller Chapel balcony.

The demanding role of the Evangelist, the listener’s guide through Christ’s tribulations, was expertly inhabited by tenor Steven Soph. Throughout the performance his shining voice intelligently advanced the story’s action, his keen dramatic sensibility always attuned to the events he was describing. Soph’s arias were stunning. “Ich will bei meinem Jesu Wachen” was sung with a noble defiance and “Geduld! Geduld!” with a spirit resolute piety, sensitively integrated with viola de gambist Craig Trompeter’s obbligato.

Gerard Sundberg’s Jesus projected a fitting aura of peace imbued with authority, his rich baritone expressive of Christ’s vulnerable humanity. His recitatives were luminously accompanied by the minimal string sections and his dialogues with Soph were convincingly conversational and deftly paced.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker was a hypnotic and heart-rending woman of sorrow; her arias “Buß und Reu” and “Erbarme dich” were rich in pathos and made for some of the performance’s emotional highpoints. Soprano Ellen Hargis matched Smucker’s affective evocativeness in “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” and “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (the latter beautifully accompanied by Anita Rieder on flute).

Ryan De Ryke’s throaty baritone served his several roles—notably Pilate—admirably, and his delivery of the work’s final aria “Mache dich, mein Herze” brought more than a handful of audience members to tears. He sang “Welt, geh aus, laß Jesum ein!” in a generous fashion so gorgeously noble that one was inclined to think the world just might listen.

The performance’s only major pitfall was due to a mishap on the organ. Early in the performance keyboardist Jory Vinikour accidentally hit a “slider” on the instrument, which rendered the organ inoperable. Fortunately, the problem was corrected at intermission, but that left many of the numbers in the first half sounding bare. The ensemble members, led by Trompeter, adapted and compensated for the lack of filled-out harmonies.

Soloists drawn from the Chorale ably filled the score’s smaller roles. Zachary Johnson was a convincing Peter, and Andrew Lee an emphatic Judas. However, the greater whole of which these two men were a part was the centerpiece of the performance. Emblematic of the chorus’ (and Bach’s) wide emotional breadth were the shear terror the chorus induced when calling for the thief Barabbas to be freed instead of Jesus and when clamoring for the latter’s crucifixion (“Laß ign kreuzign!”) contrasted with the awed absolution of the line “Warlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen.”

In the final chorus they achieved a shimmering color in the words “die Augen ein,” highlighting the rare pianissimo dynamic marking from Bach, and sent the audience into the last week of Lent with a glowing “Sanfte ruh!”

The Chicago Chorale performs a program entitled “Da pacem Domine,” on loss, hope, and peace, 8 p.m. June 13 at St. Vincent De Paul Parish.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Chicago Chorale delivers a memorable “St. Matthew Passion””

  1. Posted Mar 30, 2015 at 1:56 pm by Terry

    What a helpful and informative review…bringing the words and the music together to make sense of the work and its historical as well as liturgical context.

  2. Posted Apr 02, 2015 at 7:54 pm by Heidi Lee

    I loved my son Andrew’s performance of Judas he’s such an excellent singer.
    Also very much liked the bass soloist’s Mache dich. It was excellent.
    Many thanks to him for his singing throughout the Passion.

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