J.S. Bach – St Matthew Passion

Châtelet, Paris – March 14 2005

Ton Koopman, conductor. Evangelist: Jörg Dürmüller. Jesus: Ekkehard Abele. With Cornelia Samuelis, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, alto; Paul Agnew, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass. Breda Sacramentskoor boys’ choir. Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir.

All’s well that ends well

Remember Beecham on Bach? "Too much counterpoint," he declared, "and what is worse, Protestant counterpoint!" Counterpoint doesn’t come more protestant than with Ton Koopman. His group’s instruments aren’t just “original” or “historic;” they’re positively primitive, as if any improvement on the ur-design has been rejected and every gut string lovingly hand-crafted by a vegetarian in Birkenstock sandals. The approach is ascetic. They play as if their regular diet is bread and water (dry, unleavened bread at that) and they’re now observing lent – which I suppose they are. During the chorales, you can imagine the words in simple cross stitch or poker-work, hung on a distempered wall. There’s not a wisp of incense, a glimmer of stained glass or a hint of the theatre. You get the feeling the Amish would nod their heads in approval.

This is a change for us in Paris, where we’re used to the lusher sound, fed on flowery Catholic masses and motets, tragédie lyrique and actes de ballet, of the Musiciens du Louvre or Les Arts Florissants. Koopman’s sound is modest, sincere and rather dry, and the phrasing is calculated to match the sustaining power of his instruments: short.

The singers he chooses are modest too. His Jesus looked and sang like an undertaker (“He’d already suffered, by the sound of him” said the unkind neighbour to my right). His soprano sounded like a boy – quite a talented, mature boy, but a boy nonetheless. His alto looked and dressed like Ferrier (where on earth do you buy a dress like that these days?), but to no avail. Agnew (“Which one was Platée?” asked my neighbour to the left, as the singers walked on) sounded out of place, contaminated by his louche French career. The Evangelist sang elegantly, though, and the bass turned out to be the star of the evening.

To cut a potentially long story short, basically, the men were better than the women, the orchestra was not so good when split or in concertante passages (I was surprised to hear Dutch soloists having intonation problems), better at full strength, and therefore the “best bits” were the choruses and chorales.

In the first half, once the violent coughing had died down, the gentle round of the “sublime sewing machine” got under way and was punctuated only by the flop of programmes falling from hands and knees as people dozed off. A kind of pious boredom set in, and at the intermission those of us who stirred shook off a fine coating of churchy dust. I might have been tempted to leave, but decided I’d learn from last week’s mistake: things pick up in second halves. So although, as part two started, when the supertitles displayed “Jesus is gone” I thought “lucky bastard,” I stayed. My eyes hurt. I may have nodded off a little. But eventually, as the crucifixion drew near (and the women soloists had little more to do), the simplicity and sincerity worked, the bass had his big moment and the final chorus was splendid.

It was a long evening; too long really. But in the end I was right to have stayed.

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