March 22, 2008
Masur and Transfiguration
J.S. Bach's most towering and dramatic religious work does not end with the Resurrection of Jesus. It ends with his death, with the double chorus singing tenderly (in German) "My Jesus, good night... ...Rest ye weary limbs... Utterly content, the eyes close in slumber." Jesus need never be risen, though. Not so long as Kurt Masur, the crusty ever-younger ever more dynamic conductor, resurrects Jesus every year at this time. And like a poem by John Donne, each time of the resurrection, it is done differently, with a different layer added to the Glorious Mystery.
Some years ago, Maestro Masur brought over the entire boys' choir from St. Thomas Church in Germany Bach's own church-to sing the St. Matthew Passion. This year, he used New York's own Westminster Choir, augmented by the American Boychoir echoing the sopranos and altos. If the choir was presumably larger than Bach's own, the double-orchestra was a decent compromise between a chamber Baroque ensemble and the full Philharmonic. Adding to that compromise were some ancient instruments viola d'amore solo, duets with oboes d'amore and recorders, and of course harpsichord and organ.
But with Masur on the podium, the blend of soloists, choruses, orchestras and solo instruments was nothing compared to the highly dramatic, almost breathtaking version of the Passion this year. Except for the intermission, there simply was no stopping the telling of the immortal story. From the first swirling chorus (the 12/8 meter was akin to the opening chaos of Haydn's Creation) to the final resting chorale in the peaceful key of E-flat, Masur presented a non-stop performance of violence and tenderness, agony and ecstasy, all told with a rhythmic pulse led by Masur. His tempos were usually faster than ordinary, but this only made the story more suspenseful in a way. We didn't need to stop for "chapter and verse". We wanted to see what would happen each moment of almost real time.
Through Bach and Masur together, the chorus played so many roles. The choruses commented on the actions through varied layerings on a repeated chorale. They played the villainous hordes when shouting out "Barabbas", they played question and answer with the alto soloist asking where and when Jesus would come and go. But they were simply the foundation upon which the eternal characters played out the last evening of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. And the soloists had the voices to fit the action.
Above all, tying the story together, was James Taylor (no, not that James Taylor) as the Evangelist. Yes, his voice was radiant and resounding. More important was his dramatic turn of phrase, his moods from the extreme to the beatific, as he told through a recitative which verged on aria the story. Yet Jesus too, as played by the baritone Matthias Goerne, was rich and full in his part. Anna Larrson was perfect as alto, Christiane Libor, a bit edgy at first, grew into her part, and Jason Grant, Grant in triple roles as Judas, Peter and a High Priest none very sympathetic gave an operatically stentorian magnificence to each part.
Nothing was amiss amongst the other soloists, even in the chorus for their one- or two-line parts. And the New York Philharmonic gave one of their great performances. As a double orchestra, as a single orchestra accompaniment, or with all the Baroque instruments, organ and harpsichord, Masur gave simply a show which the heavens themselves would applaud.
One moment, though, I did not see but hear from another. Rushing out of Avery Fisher Hall to write this, I didn't hear the final five minutes of applause after almost three hours of music. At the end, Kurt Masur simply picked up his score and pointed to it, as if to say, "Not me, but old Johann himself deserves this applause."
That sentiment would obviously be deeply reciprocated.