In Review > Concerts and Recitals

St. Matthew Passion

Philippe Herreweghe & Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra | Alice Tully Hall

The Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe, gave a superlative, at times transcendent, performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion on March 31 at Alice Tully Hall. The orchestra played with sublime unity and extraterrestrial intonation, while the buoyant young chorus delivered unified, expressive final consonants that set a new benchmark for choral singing. Every member of the choir and orchestra seemed personally committed to the emotional experience of the music. As a result, the grand contrapuntal choruses such as "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen," "Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden" and "Der du den Tempel Gottes zerbrichst" were the highlights of the evening, and it was in those moments that one felt privileged to be witnessing a definitive performance.

Where the evening fell slightly short was with the soloists, who seemed more apt for church than for concert hall. The exception was baritone Michael Nagy, who sang a richly affecting, dignified and authoritative Christus. Even when he sat in his chair while the others sang about him, he remained in character, allowing himself to be affected by their words. As the Evangelist, Julian Prégardien exhibited a ringing, unfettered tenor that was extremely expressive vocally, especially in some of the quieter moments. However, he was not particularly charismatic and didn't seem to have much invested emotionally in relating the greatest story ever told. The other soloists, pulled from the choir, were fine, if unexceptional. In every aria that featured an instrumental obbligato, the player upstaged the singer. Countertenor Damien Guillon took the lion's share of the alto solos, singing with liquid delicacy, especially in "Erbarme dich." His counterpart, Robin Blaze, contributed a more theatrically convincing, if less vocally satisfying "Können Tränen meiner Wangen." The basses, Tobias Berndt and Peter Kooij, sang with the clearest dramatic sense, and Kooij made a sympathetic Pilate. Tenor Thomas Hobbs gave a committed rendering of "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen," but Hans Jörg Mammel couldn't quite get his voice around "Geduld, geduld." Soprano Grace Davidson endowed "Blute nur, du liebes Herz" with an appropriately childlike purity, while Julia Doyle was engaging in "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken."

At the center of it all was Herreweghe, who didn't conduct so much as channel the music. He had no interest in — and, really, no need of — keeping a beat. When necessary, he allowed his hands (he used no baton) to transmit a pulse. But mostly he shaped phrases, as if he were molding clay, with musicianship so forceful that even the most complicated passages were in no danger of falling apart. It was sheer wizardry on the podium. spacer 


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