the Passion according to Saint Matthew is the pinnacle of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work, and perhaps of all music. For a group devoted to the composer’s music, like the Washington Bach Consort, an interpretation of this monumental work is essential. For his first run through the play with the ensemble since becoming musical director in 2018, Dana Marsh led a standout performance Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill.
When the Bach Consort last performed the St. Matthew Passion in 2017, Kenneth Slowik replaced the ensemble’s beloved founder, J. Reilly Lewis, who had died suddenly the previous year. Marsh took some time to settle into his position with the group, but in this performance he negotiated the daunting combination of two orchestras, three choirs and several soloists with confident assurance. The Bach Consort finally fully resembled Marsh’s ensemble.
The coronavirus, however, still had its part to play, with some positive tests ruling the singers out of the gig and requiring some substitutions. In “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß”, the chorale that closes the first part of the Passion, the choir exalted Jesus because “the dead he gave life and banished all sickness from elsewhere”. It is a prayer that we all echo.
Marsh pulled a vital sound from the 12-voice double orchestras in the opening movement, with a particularly resonant cello and violone sound over the throbbing pedal bass lines. The two choirs of eight singers each exchanged questions and answers about the Bridegroom being sacrificed like a lamb. Five young women from the choristers of the Washington National Cathedral took the soprano in ripieno part, adorning the chorale tunes in the opening and closing pieces of Part I with gentle delicacy.
Marsh coordinated the biblical sections of the work with crisp efficiency, moving from recitatives to choruses and arias seamlessly. The baritone Jonathon Adams gave a resonant force to the words of Christ, which Bach always covers with a “halo of strings”, played here with consummate warmth. Tenor Rufus Müller sang the evangelist’s words from memory, lending a searing intensity to the narration, albeit with some weakness in the upper register.
Countertenor Reginald Mobley sang the many alto solos of Choir I with supple sonority and admirable suppleness in the melismatic passages. In the aria “Buß und Reu”, its jerky notes evoked the sound of falling tears, in complex interaction with the impeccable flutes of Colin St-Martin and Kathie Stewart. He soothed his robust sound to marry nicely with male soprano Elijah McCormack on “So ist mein Jesus”, rocked by violent outbursts from the choir.
McCormack’s voice rang out with crisp power in ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’, intertwined with the remarkable oboes d’amore of Geoffrey Burgess and Margaret Owens. McCormack’s subdued rendition of the tune “Aus Liebe” in the second half was the highlight of the evening. Amid the tumultuous cries as Pilate decided the fate of Christ, this serene moment stood out. McCormack’s beloved vocal line was enveloped only in the silent tendrils of sound emitted by Burgess and Owens, now on deeper da caccia oboes and the winding flute of St-Martin.
Although Mobley was effective for most of the work, the countertenor’s sound lacked the motherly warmth needed in “Erbarme dich”. The remarkable mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith had an urgent and languid tone on “Können tränen”, but forced the strident parts of the preceding recitative. Switching these two pieces between the two alto soloists, even if it goes against what Bach specified, would probably have improved them both.
The two tenor soloists, Matthew Hill in Choir I and Jacob Perry, Jr. in Choir II, both sang with heroic strength and musical subtlety. In particular, Perry brought a smooth, steady sound to his aria, “Geduld,” shaken by Wade Davis’ stabbing cello part, symbolizing the false tongues slandering Jesus and the narrator of the aria.
Bass Edmund Milly was a piercing Pilatus, also replacing his ailing colleague with admirable force in ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’, despite some tremors on the viola da gamba obbligato. (This moment from the St. Matthew Passion is depicted in the magnificent Tiffany window above the musicians’ heads, a scene of Christ leaving the Praetorium and Simon the Cyrene taking up the cross.) Katelyn Aungst’s pointed soprano worked perfectly for the poignant aria “Bluete nur.”
David Rugger’s resounding bass was deftly supported by the violins in ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’, but the whole was less certain in his ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder’, with some logic played by violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova. Bass Jason Widney pleaded self-blame as Petrus and also covered the other tune, “Mache dich”, for his ailing colleague, with the musicality if not quite the force needed on the lowest notes .
The St. Matthew Passion will be repeated Sunday at 4 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. To celebrate his return to the renovated National Presbyterian Church next season, the Washington Bach Consort will perform Handel Messiah, by Bach Christmas oratorio and Mass in B Minor, and a world premiere by Trevor Weston. bachconsort.org