Friday, April 7, 2023

Concert Hall, Helsinki Music Centre, Mannerheimintie 13 A, 00100 Helsinki, Finland

I’ll admit to being a Matthew Passion novice, very few recordings and concert performances, the most striking of the latter being live on BBC Radio 3 from the 2001 Cheltenham Festival, in Gloucester Cathedral, Colin Davis conducting hand-picked instrumentalists chosen by Steven Isserlis (who also took part), with one of the orchestras led by Joshua Bell. It was a magisterial and spellbinding account, one that nearly got to welcoming the midnight hour. Writing in The Guardian (July 10, 2001) Stephen Johnson wrote: “… this performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion … was beyond doubt the finest I’ve ever heard – technically, emotionally and spiritually.” Given the broadcast, I am surprised that, whether in whole or part, it is not on YouTube.

I don’t have antipathy towards Bach’s setting and am very aware that many people regard it as one of the greatest pieces in all music, or even the greatest; however, such as Missa solemnis, German Requiem and Messiah mean more to me, especially the first two. Certainly the Passion‘s chorales are sublime, so too many of the arias; I think it’s the recitatives that I find tricky, even though they are taking the story forward, for they make a long composition bitty to my mind (ditto Baroque and Classical opera or the spoken word in Zauberflöte).

Finnish Radio presented the Passion thus: “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is an intense journey into suffering, guilt and faith. It reflects on the core mystery of the Christian faith with passion yet, as it were, in slow motion, stressing inner emotions rather than action. The solo arias are personal reckonings, and the listener cannot help confronting his or her own human weaknesses. The chorus comments on the Good Friday events as in a Greek tragedy.” Succinct and very helpful.

I am not reviewing this performance because I am not qualified. Rather I report lasting the course (with occasional impatience) – in this instance 160 minutes of music* and found the rendition to be beguilingly light on its feet, if not without gravitas, solemnity or drama, as well as expressiveness, with fine choral singing, including girls’ and boys’ voices (Tapiolan kuoro), complemented by distinguished vocal solos (Hugh Cutting wonderful in ‘Erbarme dich’) and instrumental obbligatos, harpsichord and organ always audible. Nicholas Collon, a self-confessed atheist, conducted with belief in the music.

*Most recorded performances take on average 2 hours 40 minutes (like Collon, although I thought some parts of the final stretches dragged under his direction), with Karls Richter & Münchinger several minutes longer than three hours, and Klemperer on his way to four, which I think Sir Colin was emulating in Gloucester.

Nicholas Mulroy, tenor (Evangelist)

Arttu Kataja, bass baritone (Jesus)
Christina Landshamer, soprano
Thomas Bauer, baritone
Hugh Cutting, countertenor
Magnus Dietrich, tenor

Helsinki Chamber Choir & Tapiolan kuoro