Rilling's final Matthew makes a worthy finale
By Marilyn Farwell
From The Register-Guard
July 17, 2012
The final Oregon Bach Festival concert each year is usually fraught with emotion. Excitement mixes with sadness, gratitude with relief.
But this season’s culminating event, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, carried the added burden of being the last time Helmuth Rilling would conduct this masterwork as the festival’s artistic director.
Rilling led his large musical forces — a double orchestra, double chorus, a children’s choir and six soloists — in a concert to cherish at the Hult Center on Sunday afternoon.
As he often does, Rilling combined dramatic insight with musical incisiveness, giving an operatic flavor to his interpretation of Bach’s Passion. Although Bach never wrote an opera, he incorporated elements of baroque opera into his religious oratorios. The core of 18th century opera seria, the accompanied recitative and da capo aria, is also at the musical heart of Bach’s work.
What baroque opera did not cultivate, however, was choral music, and there Bach excels.
The choruses in this oratorio take on several roles in the drama of Christ’s last days, at times becoming the crowd that jeers and scorns Jesus, at other times the mourners at his death and burial.
Rilling drew from these groups the subtlest of emotional expressions. Even the chorales, which are usually monochromatic songs of reflection, became touching and vivid.
“Ich will hier” was especially poignant. Some chorus members also handled short solos nicely. The stellar singing of the two choruses in Sunday’s performance contributed a great deal to the concert’s success.
The vocal soloists were, for the most part, impressive. Lyric tenor Nicholas Phan sang the taxing role of the Evangelist with beauty and a rare dramatic flair. Anger, sadness and despair were all a part of his myriad expressions.
Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was outstanding in her several arias. Her seamless, focused voice wove beautiful long legato lines in “Aus Liebe.”
The two bass soloists, Tyler Duncan as Jesus and Markus Eiche as the soloist, had appropriately contrasting timbres, each quite beautiful. Duncan’s bass was warm and smooth, befitting the words of Christ; Eiche has an excellent dark and commanding bass voice.
Alto Sophie Harmsen was an admirable vocal dramatist and had some fine moments in the central aria of work, “Erbarme dich,” but her voice loses focus and quality in her lower register. Tenor Dann Coakwell sang sweetly, but with limited projection and color.
The divided orchestra gave the sense of baroque transparency to sections each played separately, and together they played brilliantly. Instrumental soloists were superb throughout.
Violinists Gabriel Adorján and Elizabeth Baker were exceptional in their contrasting solos. The always-excellent Allan Vogel made the oboe cry with sadness and then joined oboist Amy Goeser Kolb for a playful duet.
John Dornenburg played the difficult viola da gamba with assuredness, and flutists Adrás Adorján and Janice Tipton added wonderful obligatos to various vocal solos.
Even after 12 times as the centerpiece of the Oregon Bach Festival, this longest of Bach’s works seemed to fly by as all the musicians joined together for a concert worthy of a farewell.
Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.