The day started with the partial destruction of one masterpiece – Notre-Dame de Paris. It ended with the partial resurrection of another – Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I say partial, because Dr Joseph Nolan’s edition of the latter, last heard in St George’s Cathedral in 2014, cuts Bach’s from nearly three and a half hours to around two; it also presents all the chorales a cappella.
Joseph Nolan, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral Consort. Photo © WASO
Bach wasn’t above making all sorts of changes himself, and the differences between his 1727 version and 1736 revision are numerous. But personally, I think lopping an hour and a half off makes about as much dramatic and musical sense as cutting, say, operas of similar length such as Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier or Verdi’s Don Carlos. Such a pity, for example, to so abruptly go from the opening chorus to the the soprano aria Ich will dir mein Herze schenken and its preceding recitative, leaving us bereft of such gems as Blute nur and Buss und Reu.
Singing the chorales exclusively unaccompanied (well, apart from the one imbedded in the opening double chorus, of course) doesn’t always make dramatic sense either. There are many moments, such as that following Jesus’s death (Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden – “When once I must depart”) where it can work beautifully, the chorale shorn of the orchestral accompaniment like the spirit unencumbered of its mortal flesh. In other places, such as that following the apostles’ eventually hollow resolution to stick with Jesus through thick and thin, it is surely better to keep the chorale clothed in orchestral raiment.
Then there is the question of an attacca approach in certain instances to maintain the narrative thrust. So much energy can be dissipated by excessive stopping and starting.
Okay, having got all that off my chest, I can safely say that from the monumentality of the throbbing opening chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen through to the exquisitely painful closing chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, this was still one of the most moving and technically accomplished performances of the St Matthew Passion I have had the privilege of hearing. A pared-back and frighteningly match-fit WASO comprised the double orchestra; the St Georges Cathedral Consort was likewise divided in two; these and the solo singers were supported by single continuo section seated in the middle: Stewart Smith on organ and Noeleen Wright on cello. Nolan presided over all with the electric incisiveness that is his stock in trade.
Highlights were so numerous it hardly makes sense to call them highlights at all. Tenor Paul McMahon’s Evangelist was consistently eloquent, expressive and alert to every dramatic nuance of the biblical story of Jesus’s persecution, suffering and crucifixion, while baritone Andrew Foote was a dignified, almost serene Jesus. Soprano Sara Macliver’s bittersweet Ich will dir mein Herze schenken and Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben. Mezzo Fiona Campbell’s richly plangent Erbarme dich. The pair’s So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen. Bass-baritone James Clayton’s stern contributions as Pilate, as well as his marvelous Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder! and Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. Tenor Richard Butler’s resonant Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen. The solo instrumental contributions of the likes of violinists Laurence Jackson (WASO concertmaster) and Rebecca Glorie. Oboist Liz Chee. Flautist Andrew Nicholson – as persuasive, as rhetorically vivid, as any of the vocal soloists.
And last but not least, the magnificent St George’s Cathedral Consort, the power, clarity and beauty of whose singing on this occasion were as much a testament to individual talents as a testament to Nolan’s astute and persistent guidance over the years.