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Festival's Grand Finale Lives up to its name

  • Jul 15, 2008
[caption id="attachment_2970" align="alignright" width="219" caption="The start of the St. Matthew Passion, concluding concert of the 2008 OBF."][/caption]The 2008 Oregon Bach Festival drew to its conclusion over the weekend with a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the third work in the composer’s triumvirate of monumental choral masterpieces. The other two, the Mass in B Minor and the St. John Passion, had been played earlier in the festival. The St. Matthew was performed on Sunday afternoon in the Hult Center’s almost-sold-out Silva Hall. The score calls for substantial forces: a double chorus and double orchestra, a children’s choir and five major vocal soloists. The two main choruses were placed to the right and left and somewhat forward on the stage, the two orchestras were similarly arranged on the right and left, and the children’s choir was center stage, at the back. This layout allowed for the full antiphonal effects of the score to be dramatically realized. And as so much of this work’s power relies on the two main vocal groups questioning and answering each other, combining their voices in the high tension drama, one could almost visualize the tragic action as it unfolded and moved relentlessly forward. Powerful stuff, indeed. The muddy enunciation that had marred the chorus in the festival’s opening night Mass in B Minor performance was, happily, absent from the St. Matthew. I think this was because the choirs were placed further forward on the stage and thus their sound was projected more clearly into the hall; also, singing in German with its more guttural, staccato phonics, makes for clearer diction than the softer, more vowel-filled sounds of the Mass’ Latin words. Both choruses sang and both orchestras played virtually flawlessly throughout the three-hour performance. Entrances were strong and perfectly coordinated, and everyone sounded note perfect. Maestro Helmuth Rilling conducting, as usual, without the score, held all musicians firmly under his control, bobbing, weaving, swaying and jumping on his podium like a man half his age. Finally, the soloists. What beautiful music these five vocalists and the half a dozen instrumentalists gave us! Sibylla Rubens’ silvery bell soprano thrilled, particularly in her aria “Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben”, with superb accompaniment from Allan Vogel’s oboe and Janice Tipton’s flute. Ingeborg Danz’s alto was, quite simply, mesmerizing. It has a rich, golden, violalike patina that melts one’s heart. Her “Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin” and, particularly, her “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” accompanied by a violin solo, were shot through with a rich purity that held the audience in absolute silence. Lothar Odinius, as the Evangelist, had more to sing, by far, than anyone, and his rich, expressive tenor propelled the story along with unwavering intensity. Odinius’ aria “Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” — with its accompaniment by Joanna Blendulf’s perfectly pitched, reedy viola de gamba — was a thing of absolute beauty. Nathan Berg’s bass served spendidly in Jesus’s recitatives. And Michael Nagy’s lustrous bass served him well, particularly in his aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesus wieder”, accompanied by violin soloist Rahel Rilling. Overall, then, this was a virtually flawless performance of one of the greatest and most challenging masterpieces in Western music. There could have been no finer conclusion to the Oregon Bach Festival’s 39th season. Bravo! John Farnworth of Vida reviews classical music for The Register-Guard. Copyright © 2008 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA