Bach Consort's 'St. Luke Passion,' Making the Most of Its Strengths

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Washington Bach Consort's presentation of the "St. Luke Passion," composer unknown, at National Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon proved a brave and strangely affecting endeavor.

Until the mid-19th century, the "St. Luke Passion" was generally attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach -- and indeed the master both conducted it and copied out parts of its score by hand. When one considers that Bach's two surviving settings of this most monumental and high-minded of courtroom dramas -- the "St. Matthew Passion" and the "St. John Passion" -- are among the treasures of Western civilization, it is easy to see why the hope of discovering yet a third work in the series would be irresistible.

But no, no, a thousand times no! The "St. Luke Passion" is not the work of J.S. Bach -- and the thought that it was ever accepted as such seems incredible to us today. This is a fragile, earnest effort by an anonymus composer who had not yet mastered his craft, replete with uneven phrases, awkward voice-leading and some downright bizarre transitions. It is the 18th-century German musical equivalent of "outsider" art, somewhat akin to what Grandma Moses might have fashioned had she turned her painterly attention in the direction of metaphysics.

And yet the composer of the "St. Luke Passion," like Grandma Moses, is not without charm. A simple and often ingratiating humility pervades the score. Moreover, the anonymous composer employs some of the same sturdy chorale melodies on which Bach built the "St. Matthew Passion" (although Bach's harmonizations are immeasurably more intense). Despite its occasional gaucheries, then, the "St. Luke Passion" is a tender, heartfelt and likable minor work.

Still, the main reason for the success of Sunday's performance was the Washington Bach Consort's refusal to treat it as such. On the contrary -- conductor J. Reilly Lewis led a performance of remarkable urgency and conviction, as though he had uncovered a masterpiece. The tempos never dragged, nor did they seem rushed. The chorus -- kept very busy throughout the piece -- sang with an unusual mixture of unity and clarity, the individual voices standing out like glistening strands in a sonic tapestry. And the orchestra, despite some occasional queasy intonation from the winds, generally held its part, too.

Tenor Robert Petillo sang most of the role of the Evangelist from the pulpit with surpassing sweetness, although another tenor, Frederick Urrey, was allotted the character's two arias, which he delivered deftly and with due gravity. (In Bach's own Passion settings, arias are sung only as commentary on the narrative, never by the protagonists.)

Baritone Christopheren Nomura sang the part of Jesus with the requisite empathy and calm. Jennifer Hines has a noble and expressive dark alto voice; some of soprano Rebecca Kellerman Petretta's high notes sounded a little thin but her grace and energy were captivating. And so, while I don't think I ever need to hear the "St. Luke Passion" again, I expect to reflect back happily on the dedication and musicianship of this rare performance.

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