St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) – REVIEW Rainer W. Buhmann, Auckland/Orewa

St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Performed by ‘Bach Musica NZ’
Music, Artistic Director and Conductor: Rita Paczian
Auckland Town Hall, Sunday, April 11th, 2021

Rainer W. Buhmann, Auckland/Orewa

It was in 1723, when Johann Sebastian Bach applied for the position of Director of Music (Kantor) at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Other applicants were Georg Phillip Telemann, Hamburg, and Christoph Graupner, Luxembourg, a renowned composer and harpsichordist at the time. The City Councillors openly conceded their preferences, and it was not Johann Sebastian Bach.

Telemann’s Hamburg-employers, however, significantly increased his salary, which could not be matched by the Leipzig City-fathers, and Christoph Graupner was not freed from his employment-obligations.

By default, the choice therefore fell on Johann Sebastian Bach, who at the time was a lowly regarded court-musician at the Principality of Coethen. The Leipzig City-fathers openly declared defeat – and that under duress they had settled for ‘mediocrity’.

Bach had to accept employment conditions such as agreeing to writing compositions, which were not too long and most certainly remained within the realms of established church-musical tradition. His compositions were also not permitted to venture into opera-inspired vanity and glamour.

How Bach interpreted such constraints in his own way, became noticeable by the performance of his official ‘trial-composition’, performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche on Good Friday 1723: the St John’s Passion.

It dawned then on Council-officials and parishioners, that with the demonstrated musical depth and prowess of their new Kantor they might be confronted with Church-music thus far unknown – but most certainly not containing the elements of mediocrity.

The pettiness and small-mindedness of his superiors continued in Bach’s employment. He was, however, undeterred. He demonstrated his unbelievable strength and resourcefulness by composing a new Cantata for almost every Sunday. Between 1725 and 1729 he quietly worked on larger projects, including another Passion.

The unsuspecting Leipzig City-fathers, the Thomaskirche-congregation, and his own followers he surprised with a completely new creation. On Good Friday 1729 he premiered the very Oratorio, which we were privileged to hear last Sunday (11.4.2021) at a packed Auckland Town Hall: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

​And what a privilege it was! With their first concert in 2021 Bach Musica NZ under their Music- and Artistic Director, Rita Paczian, and with their first bars of the rendition, immediately – and once again – expressed their musical prowess, their competency, energy and authority, leaving their audience in respectful silence.

The Bach Musica NZ choir and orchestra demonstrated a deep knowledge and understanding of the work, which clearly enabled them to give a most knowledgeable and memorable performance – and this in the original German language. A tribute to Rita Paczian for this decision, as Bach would clearly have been influenced by the German word, when he composed his music.

For the performance of his monumental work the ambitious Bach had decided on two choirs and two orchestras, possibly guided by the architecture of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche – but creating a tight situation on stage at the Auckland Town Hall.

The preparation of this 3 ½ hour concert would, under the prevailing circumstances of Covid-19, not have been without organisational challenge or drama. For a start: the soloist in the role of Christ had to be replaced on super-short notice. The saviour was bass-baritone Paul Whelan, Christchurch, and with his introit “Da Jesus diese Rede vollendet hatte… “ the audience knew that they could put their trust and confidence into this fine soloist with his sonorous opulence and authority.

In his St Matthew Passion Bach exposes in part the frailty of the human mind versus the overpowering effect of the masses’ will, as this is demonstrated by Pontius Pilate. He engages his choirs by equally being Jesus’ accusers and defenders. Bach has touched on a phenomenon that is still prevalent more than 2000 years later.

To explain the intricacy of such a phenomenon, that required an untiring narrator, an Evangelist, who would be capable of plausibly telling the story over the entire duration of the concert. He was found in Iain Tetley. On account of his vocal strength and versatility he advanced to one of the evening’s super-stars. Initially relying on the expressed lyrical side of his fine tenor-voice, he suddenly introduced urgency and ‘steal’ in “Und er kam und fand sie aber schlafend” – and thus the audience had become fully aware of Iain Tetley’s full versatility.​ To overcome the fiendishly difficult tonal and emotional mood-swings of his part, this required the sustainability of an outstanding vocal artist, capable of delivering the subtleties of his narrative under pressure and with tonal beauty and persuasion. Ian Tetley was able to demonstrate both, and conceivingly he can currently be regarded as New Zealand’s finest Evangelist.​

​Paul Whelan deserves a second mention as an outstanding and believable Christ, who with the tonal generosity and fullness of his voice significantly added to the enormous impact of this performance.

Elizabeth Mandeno was another bright star of the evening, as she delighted with her clean and assured soprano, to which the upper register appeared to be without limit. In the well-known “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” Miss Mandeno demonstrated remarkable tonal beauty and agility. Her collaboration with Flute and Oboe in “Er hat uns allen wohlgetan” and “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” was one of the evening’s highlights. Quite apart from being successfully involved in NZ Opera, Miss Mandeno could clearly present herself as one of New Zealand’s finest baroque specialists.

The mezzo-soprano of Catrin Johnsson provided additional delights to the evening. Her vast experience in the fields of opera and baroque were evident. Her entries into the higher regions of her mezzo-soprano were taken with greater ease, than those into the lower register. Her “Du lieber Heiland du” and “Buss und Reu knirrscht das Suendenherz entzwei “were very convincing, Her aria-interchange with the choir. “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin”, as well as her recitative “Erbarm’ es Gott” were believably mournful, and her duet with the soprano, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” was simply captivating. Her aria in the 2nd part, “Erbarme dich” – accompanied by the exquisite solo violin of Miranda Hutton was simply spellbinding.​

Lachlan Craig left a significant mark as First Priest. With his lyrical tenor-voice he made a notable contribution, to the ensemble and to the evening. His interchange with the choir “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” provided clear evidence of a distinctly promising artist.​

In his baritone-contribution as Second Priest and Pontius Pilate William King made the audience pay particular attention. Another promising young artist had justifiably been given soloist-responsibility by Bach Musica NZ, and the soloist discharged this responsibility with style. His Pilate was believable and authoritative – yet slightly troubled, owing to Pilate’s arbitrary handling of his situation. Another unquestionable highlight of this evening was his assured rendition of the most demanding aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” – accompanied by the incredible solo-violin of Joella Pinto – an artistic collaboration of the highest order. A beautiful bass-baritone voice with warmth and persuasion. William King – a young artist seriously in the making.

Bach Musica NZ’s choir was augmented by a large Ripieno-Ensemble, the Auckland Girls’ Choir (Director: Gina Sanders). This young choir brought distinct brightness to the evening – but this with an element of timidness.
Already with their commanding introduction “Kommt ihr Toechter, helft mir klagen,” the concert-goer was once again left in no doubt about the choir’s
quality and competency – as well as of an obvious harmony in the communication between choristers and conductor. Superb tonal quality, emotional phrasing, rhythmic precision and agility and confident ‘attacks’ at
every choral entry were abundantly evident. The choir expressed total cohesion and became an instrument in itself – and this in the hands of their energetic and exemplary conductor. Conductor and choir were on top of the situation! It was a masterpiece!

As mentioned before – assuming both the roles of Jesus’ accusers and defenders (“Weissage uns Christe” versus “Wer hat dich so geschlagen!”) the choir mastered all emotional nuances in admirable tonal diversity and ferocious precision. Examples are: “Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!” and “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden!” Their expression of unadulterated hatred as in “Barabbas!” was simply arresting and chilling!
The choir’s subtle, but conscious ‘ritandardos’ at the end of the Passion’s famous choruses and as directed by Rita Paczian, were particularly thoughtful and sensitive.

The artistic depth of Bach Musica NZ’s choir was further demonstrated by the fact, that no fewer than five soloists emerged from their ranks to cover minor principal roles in admirable fashion.

It is a masterpiece in itself, that Rita Paczian manages time and time again to assemble an orchestra of skilled, competent and virtuoso musicians equal to those qualities in the choir. Whilst the combined orchestras I and II under the leadership of Concertmaster Miranda Hutton rose to a remarkable performance, her beautiful solo-accompaniment of the alto’s “Erbarme dich” warrants a special mention – as does the previously mentioned violin-virtuoso accompaniment by Joella Pinto in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”. Her impeccable rendition of demi-semi-quaver notes at lightning speed, but by maintaining sensitivity and artistic integrity to the content of this mournful aria throughout her rendition, were simply outstanding.

Also mentioned must be the oboes of Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson and the players of their sections, the flutes in both sections, the unobtrusive and dependable organ-continuo of John Wells and Philip Sumner’s bassoon. The cello of Raeul Pierard and his forlorn solo quint during a ‘tacet’ of the entire orchestra and as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ death on the cross were decidedly arresting. The Bach Musica NZ orchestra’s amazing competency, its dedication and tonal beauty must clearly and gratefully be emphasized once again!

Not only was Maestra Rita Paczian the guiding heart and soul in this Oratorio-performance, she also brought to bear her own virtuosity in taking on the

​harpsichord-continuo for the Evangelist and the choir when she directed from the instrument. With her seamless, impeccable, and energetic guidance ‘from the podium’ Miss Paczian show-cased in addition, that in musical terms she is in a class of her own.

The St Matthew Passion was meant to be Bach Musica NZ’s first concert at the same time last year. The Coronavirus prevented the go-ahead at the time. We must be grateful to choir and conductor, to orchestra and soloists, that they maintained their artistic focus and energy to bring to their audience a remarkable work in an outstanding performance even one year later.

It is conceivable, that when Bach premiered his immortal work in Leipzig almost 300 years ago, that the quality of his concert would have been eclipsed last Sunday by that of Bach Musica NZ‘s rendition – and this in remote New Zealand!