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A Stirring 'Passion' From Helmuth Rilling And the NSO

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Few works of music are shot through with the high solemnity of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," and it takes on an even graver urgency when it is performed on Good Friday, as it was yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center.

This was the esteemed German conductor Helmuth Rilling's debut with the National Symphony Orchestra (he led the "St. Matthew Passion" at Constitution Hall nine years ago with the Choral Arts Society) and he did not disappoint. Rilling made splendid use of his youthful forces -- the University of Maryland Concert Choir and the even younger Children's Chorus of Washington -- and assembled a group of soloists noteworthy for both their individual accomplishments and the way they fit into a greater whole.

Rilling is a scholar as well as a conductor, and much contemporary scholarship tells us that Bach was likely to have heard steadier and more dancelike tempos than we are accustomed to from the classic recorded renditions by, say, Otto Klemperer and Willem Mengelberg. I will confess that the opening chorus -- some of the most anguished and emotionally complicated music ever written -- sounded disconcertingly light in Rilling's performance.

But in no wise did he try to transform the NSO into one of those wispy baroque bands that are so acclaimed in England and Boston. This was high tragedy from start to finish. The orchestra was neither large nor small; string soloists were allowed to pulsate with vibrato; the chorus was permitted full emotional latitude in the great cry of "Barabbas!" Indeed, nothing about Rilling's interpretation was pedantic -- for example, it was an unusual and effective idea to fade voices in and out of the chorale melodies, augmenting the dynamic range by adding singers to the rank rather than by asking the ones already singing to grow louder.

Tenor Lothar Odinius was as good an Evangelist as I've heard, narrating the story with a mixture of fierce drama and honeyed lyricism. Baritone Christian Gerhaher made a warm and gently calming Christ, whose words are bathed in an unearthly aura of strings that sets them apart just as distinctly as those Bibles that print them in red ink. There was soulful, beautiful singing from soprano Kate Royal and contralto Ingeborg Danz (this last with an unusually light and agile voice for her range).

Bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang some of the less appealing characters in the drama -- notably Judas and Pilate -- in a manner that conveyed disapproval but never descended into stock villainy. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen combined clarion tones with a sure command of coloratura. Patrick Walders did well with the small part of the First Priest.

Unfortunately, during some of the most extraordinary moments of the score -- from the beginning of the trial right up to and including Christ's crucifixion -- one heard a strange wailing from the balcony. As it happened, it was a seeing-eye dog, which eventually quieted down or was removed -- a noble beast, to be sure, but its steady whimpering made for bizarre counterpoint with music of such exalted lamentation.

The concert, most likely without canine descant, will be repeated tonight at 8.

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