In spite of outstanding central performances by Rufus Müller (Evangelist) and Peter Harvey (Christus) as well as excellent contributions by chorus and orchestra, a muddled concept and rotten bad luck resulted - at least for me - in a less than satisfactory event. I hasten to add that, judging by the final applause, many of the audience were content and happy.
In his native Hungary, conductor Iván Fischer is very experienced in audience building. His 'cocoa-concerts' for children (and, of course, for accompanying adults) and his free concerts (and talks) for pensioners have snowballed into a strong fan base. The concept/format of this St Matthew Passion performance seems to have its origin in Fischer's success in Hungary but it did not contribute positively to this event.
Pre-concert marketing was already puzzling. The concert was advertised as The People's Passion. Yet surely an argument could be advanced that this work is Matthew's and Bach's Passion? As per OAE's 2006-07 publicity, the performance was going to be 'conducted by the great Iván Fischer'. Such an accolade was not granted to any of the other performers in the OAE season: the most said about them was that 'conductor Frans Brüggen bringing his formidable expertise' (Concert 1), 'The world-renowned tenor Ian Bostridge' (Concert 2), 'Vladimir Jurowski is on the podium' (Concert 5), 'Conductor Mark Elder wields the baton' (Concert 6). Arguably such presentation of OAE artists is somewhat imbalanced.
For this 'People's Passion' audience members were invited to sing in a rehearsal (or just watch, if they so wished) - one hour before the concert - with the headline 'Fischer Rehearses'. The idea was to have all those who rehearsed sing along in the chorales during the performance. In the event, the slightly longer than half an hour rehearsal consisted of singing through just once nine of the chorales, and singing through twice the remaining three chorales. We were encouraged to sing any of the choral parts we wished. The twenty-four OAE chorus members were sprinkled around in the hall giving confidence and joy to the participating audience. Nevertheless, it would be a disservice to the art of creation/preparation to call this session a rehearsal. Indeed, after the complete run-through one of the audience asked if Fischer wanted all the chorales to be sung with identical dynamics all way through (as we just did). The reply was 'just see how you feel about it at the time'. Surely this is the wrong message about preparing such masterpieces? Or is it, I wonder, how 'Fischer Rehearses'?
When the performance started, Fischer announced that, regardless whether they attended the rehearsal or not, he wanted the whole audience to join in the chorales. Very generously, the OAE provided photocopies of all the chorales for the whole audience.
Fischer explained that he wanted the chorales sung in the vernacular because the chorales represented the people's response, therefore - on this occasion - our response from the auditorium. However, as the rest of the performance - the Evangelist's narrative, all solo arias and choruses - was sung in German, the English interaction from the audience did not make any sense. Bad luck made this concept particularly ludicrous: the programme notes (which were to include the full text in German as well as in English) did not arrive from the printers, so most (if not all) of the audience did not understand the German words to which they were supposed to be responding in English. In the event, the audience's singing was sporadic and did not contribute the massed volume which Fischer hoped for. It is true that in Bach's time audiences (that is, the congregation in the church) were likely to sing the chorales during performances of the Passions but they knew the melodies and texts from their Lutheran church services. Only a few of Fischer's audience members had similar knowledge.
Rufus Müller and Peter Harvey gave exemplary performances as the Evangelist and Christus. They clearly know their parts very well. Their diction (verbal as well as vocal), musical phrasing, vocal colours and dramatic delivery served their extraordinary performances well.
The OAE chorus can be proud of having members who can step out and deliver solo arias. Aside from the parts of the Evangelist and Christus, all the other parts were taken by chorus members. They literally stepped out from the chorus and walked centre stage for their arias. Without a programme in hand, I was unable to distinguish who sang what. But there was no problem with quality, so heartiest congratulations to these members of the OAE chorus.
The OAE orchestra was rock solid. In my review about OAE's participation in Orlando at the Royal Opera House, I singled out the continuo cellist. This time the honour goes to double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku, whose continuo playing was both sensitive and often the main driving force. Both leaders of the double orchestra kept matters firmly under control. In addition, both - Midori Seiler and Margaret Faultless - delivered their solos excellently. Liza Beznosiuk's flute solo was also of note.
Fischer directed his forces with great care and sensitivity. But two elements were missing from his interpretation: majesty and roughness. For instance, partly because of his tempi, the opening and closing choruses sounded more jolly than majestic. More often than not Fischer's speeds erred on the fast side. The short but surely anxious or rough choral outbursts (several times during the Passion) sounded like casual comments instead of the all-important powerful contributions which they are meant to represent during the proceedings. Maybe Fischer's interpretation was governed by the fact that he had baroque forces at his disposal. Yet such players and singers (as those fielded by the OAE) can sustain power and produce clear attacks when directed to do so, in spite of (or precisely because of) their authentic instruments and their technique developed in accordance with baroque performance practice.
By Agnes Kory