Performing J.S. Bach’s monumental “St. Matthew Passion” with only one singer and instrumentalist per part doesn’t always succeed in conveying its momentous impact. But this approach worked splendidly on Friday (repeated Saturday) at Washington National Cathedral. Led by music director Michael McCarthy, Cathedra, the church’s small choral ensemble, and a chamber orchestra gave an engrossing account of the Passion in the resonant great choir (not subject to the echoing acoustics of the long nave).
Recent scholars continue to debate the long-standing issue of how many singers Bach intended for his sacred music. No one has yet delivered any hard evidence that Bach had a fixed choral ideal, given that performance conditions varied, depending on the number of available, competent musicians, the performance venue and the liturgical occasion. In fact, there is a growing consensus that either a mammoth chorus or chamber ensemble can be effective. Friday’s concert featured two choruses of four singers each, who sang both the solo recitatives and arias and the imposing double choruses, joined by a double orchestra on period instruments. Eleven choristers from the Cathedral Choir sang the chorales.
The success of McCarthy’s taxing, vigorously paced interpretation (except for the somewhat tentative opening chorus) was largely due to the strength and agility of each solo singer, resulting in a luminous texture of interweaving contrapuntal lines that often sound muddy with some, but not all, massive choruses. This translucency of effect also magnified the poignant bite of Bach’s drama. The mob scenes had chilling conviction, German diction was crystal clear and the performers were well matched. The viola da gambist’s bow punctuated Bach’s rhythmic pulse; the flutists added grace to the tragic theme. Singing without scores, Rufus Mueller (the Evangelist) and Benjamin Park (Jesus) impressively underscored the story’s gripping emotions.