On Saturday April 12, 2014, on the eve of Palm Sunday, Harold Rosenbaum’s New York Canticum Novum Singers gave a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion that was wonderful: the Canticum Novum Singers, the Canticum Novum Youth Choir, a roster of tremendously gifted soloists and the Artemis Chamber Orchestra at their best presented Bach’s astonishing account of the evangelist Matthew’s story of the last days of Jesus’s life with artistic clarity and musical integrity.
Rosenbaum’s reading of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was both intelligent and compassionate. The work’s tremendous complexities were handled deftly and gracefully; the story’s multilayered, densely interconnected narrative, emotional, psychological and theological elements were always clear and unconfused. Rosenbaum’s St. Matthew Passion was one of palpable emotion, but because of both the disciplined musicianship of his conducting and the skills of the musicians, the compassion of this performance was unsentimental and unselfindulgent.
The underlying clarity of intention and control that set the tone for the whole evening was evident in the opening chorus and in the Evangelist’s and Jesus’s first statements. Within the musical order and restraint of the first chorus, the text of the invitation to the congregation to participate in lamentation for what was to come was dense with portent. Though section parts within the double chorus here and throughout were clearly audible, the chorus functioned as an organic whole. The presence of the Canticum Novum Youth Choir in this opening chorus, as elsewhere, added delicacy to the women’s parts: the treble sweetness of sound made the certainty of mourning’s coming arrival all the more heart-breaking.
The Evangelist’s and Jesus’s clear and calm first statements established their relationship with each other and with the congregation, both Bach’s congregation and our modern-day audience. Over the course of the evening, the relationship between the Evangelist and Jesus shifted, and this shift, in and of itself, was one of the performance’s many strengths.
Andrew Fuchs, as the Evangelist, began the evening as a narrator, something of a story-explainer, a person there to fill in the factual gaps in case the congregation didn’t quite catch something; in this capacity he introduced Craig Phillips, as Jesus, and his pronouncements. Initially, the Evangelist gave us Jesus, the story’s main character. The remembered architecture of late medieval passion plays was fully evident as Fuchs and Phillips began their work. But as the performance unfolded, Fuchs became increasingly like an on-scene reporter something like the Chicago radio reporter who narrated the collapse of the Hindenburg as it happened before his eyes in 1937 or television journalists on the afternoon of President Kennedy’s assassination and a companion to Jesus and to all of us who witnessed the execution.
Fuchs made the Evangelist fully human and, in doing so, served with exceptional skill the project of bringing the listening congregation back in time from twenty-first century New York City through eighteen century Leipzig to first century Jerusalem.
Craig Phillips’ Jesus was a man of power and tenderness: Phillips’s full, flexible bass voice, capable of tremendous range and volume, was an instrument that conveyed both the terrible acceptance of what was to come and profound sadness at humanity’s complicity in his ordeal. Phillips’s divine authority and human vulnerability were equally credible.
In the first half of the work, the chorus’s complex functions overlap: they are witnesses to Jesus’s final days, commentators on it and congregation members who, century after century, react to the story they tell. Bach wrote it this way in terms of both text and music. In the second half of the work, after what would have been in Bach’s day a lengthy sermon, the chorus functions additionally as participants in the terrible story. Rosenbaum’s masterly direction was particularly clear in the effective contrasts among the chorus’s horrifying howled demands for Jesus’s crucifixion, the anguish of Jesus’s followers that their lord will suffer so hideous an execution, and the heart-deep prayers for grace and salvation of sinners across time.
The familiar chorales, based on old hymn tunes that Bach’s congregations would have recognized and known by heart, were especially beautiful under Rosenbaum’s direction: they were both immediately recognizeable and subtly lush. Bach’s ability to create something absolutely new from even the most familiar melodies was clear: the musical insistence that meaning be met fresh and responded to as though it had never happened before was fully accessible.
As the narrative progressed, Pilate’s role became increasingly, if only passingly important. Christopher Dylan Herbert’s dramatic intensity and effectiveness were well matched with Fuch’s and Phillips’s voices.
The effectiveness of the terrible drama of the trial scene depended as much on the soloists’ successful collaboration with each other as on Rosenbaum’s effective direction
While the major soloist roles of the Evangelist, Jesus and Pilate are primarily narrative, three other soloists serve exclusively as the voice of emotional response to the unfolding story.
Soprano Laura Heimes became increasingly expressive and secure as the performance progressed; after her duet with countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum, her singing was flexible and clear. Tenor Sean Fallen sang thoughtfully and caringly, but appeared to not be fully comfortable with the demands of the music in his major aria, Geduld, Geduld!
Mandelbaum’s performance throughout was remarkable. Even more than the soprano’s or the tenor’s, the arias of the alto, or here, the countertenor, are the places where Bach and we seek to make sense of what happens to Jesus. The work of Mandelbaum’s artistry is invisible: we hear Bach in Mandelbaum’s voice, not a singer’s efforts to sing. Mandelbaum brought us directly into the experience of assaulted faith and internal spiritual anguish as Bach described them: his performance was compelling and passionate. His connection to Bach’s music on the one hand and to his audience on the other was intimate and instant. Mandelbaum’s supple and powerful countertenor voice constitutes a particularly rich vehicle of universality: equally and fully feminine and masculine, the sound of Mandelbaum’s response to the story of Jesus’s trial and execution belonged to each and all of us.
Rosenbaum’s reading of this huge and complex work displayed his characteristic intelligence and was simultaneously exceptionally human: we listeners were invited into the totality of this experience of Jesus’s crucifixion and we lived within it together with the singers who were telling the story and, themselves, responding to its magnitude.
As always, the bright, clear acoustics of St. Jean Baptiste at Lexington Avenue and 76th Street served the music and the musicians well. The church’s highly ornamented, shiny blue, white and gold American Baroque interior seemed at first at odds with Bach’s Passion story. Throughout the sanctuary, however, major statues were shrouded head to toe in the purple cloths of Lent; it was as if unknown and unnamed witnesses mourned in the midst of glitter and jewels.
Rosenbaum stated in his Conductor’s Note that he did not so much choose the St. Matthew Passion as it chose him. For the musicians he works with and for his audience, I’m glad.
The Canticum Novum Singers
Johann Sebastian Bach, St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Saint Jean Baptiste
Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament
184 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021