'St. Matthew Passion': A Heavenly Sound

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Washington Bach Consort bookended its 30th season with the two great touchstones of Bach's -- or any -- choral repertory: the Mass in B Minor in the fall and, on Sunday afternoon at Strathmore, the searing "St. Matthew Passion," presented in a reading that J. Reilly Lewis, the group's founder and conductor, has been working on for virtually all of his organization's life.

The hard work showed in a performance that captured the work's power while embracing the principles of contemporary early music. Lewis appears to have condensed his forces over time; the wallop on Sunday came not from the sheer size of the chorus and orchestra, which in this work he divides and places in relatively modest antiphonal groups at either side of the stage, but from the dramatic sensitivity of the musicmaking.

Lewis walks a delicate and finely turned balance between the more raw and reedy timbres of the baroque -- the warm sound of the flutes and oboes that put the "wood" into woodwinds, the throaty sawings of a viola da gamba -- and the fullness and expressivity of modern instruments and modern voices. Rufus Mueller's fine Evangelist, for instance, had the light, clear, hard-edged voice that this particular role calls for, but jettisoned the narrator's impartiality in favor of involving expressivity. This sometimes brought his voice into dangerous regions, calling on it to bloom in ways it wasn't technically equipped to manage, but it gave a strong core to the performance and set the tone for the other soloists.

These included the fine mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi, who brought a rich stream of sound, dark without being thick, to the touchstone aria "Buss und Reu," and Christine Brandes, whose soprano is clear and hard and shining as a metal blade. Craig Phillips brought a wonderful voice but callow delivery to the part of Christus, and Peter Harvey plumbed the depths of his pleasant if undistinguished baritone. The weak link was Frederick Urrey, who had the strained sound of an early-music tenor from the days when "early-music" was a euphemism for "not very good."

More even than these, the chorus itself underscored the piece's tremendous variety: now an aggressive crowd hurling vicious imprecations; now the voice of mourning as it exhaled keening chords in stately lament; now joined with the Norwood School Children's Choir in complex polyphony. The relatively small numbers meant the drama was on a human scale: Individual solos were never dwarfed; the loudest anguished fortes were never overwhelming. Monumentality is within the fabric of piece. Lewis and his musicians understood that it needed no bombast to underscore it.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company