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Music review: Johann Sebastiani, St Matthew Passion (Wigmore Hall)

19 May 2023

A different Passion, says Fiona Hook


NO GOOD FRIDAY is complete without a St Matthew Passion. The Wigmore Hall’s offering was not Bach’s expansive and emotional work, but the much shorter version by a predecessor, Johann Sebastiani.

The composer (1622-83) worked as Kapellmeister in what is now Kaliningrad, Königsberg until 1946. In the 17th century, it was a hotspot of German language and culture, and this work, published in 1672, was part of a flowering of Passion settings in north Germany.

While Bach’s monumental work is three hours long, Sebastiani’s setting is 75 minutes and on a much smaller scale. Here, the narrative does not stop for long expressive arias with instrumental accompaniment. Instead, Sebastiani’s commentaries take the form of simple Passion chorales, tunes familiar to his first listeners, and, in place of Bach’s rhythmically free recitatives for the Evangelist, the narrator is accompanied by continuo and viols, imposing a stricter rhythm on the vocal line.

The performance struck a happy balance between reverence and drama. Richard Boothby, discreetly directing the ensemble Fretwork from the bass viol, selected the right tempi throughout, so that the rhythmic tightness, illuminated by subtle pauses at significant moments, lent a pace and naturalness to the text.

Tenor Hugh Hymas’s Evangelist, accompanied by three viols, brought anger and sorrow to Da verliessen ihn alle Jünger und flohen”, and contempt to “Da speieten sie aus in sein Angesicht”, his voice relaxing as Jesus was laid to rest. Christus was accompanied by the brighter and more modern sound of two violins, which were an effective foil to Jimmy Holliday, a dignified and sober bass with an impressive chest voice and lovely rounded German vowels. His Ach! Wollt ihr nun schlafen”, as the disciples slept, was full of reproach; his response to the High Priest conveyed a calm certainty.

The fittingly much lighter voice of Simon Wall’s Peter injected an increasing energy into each denial. The soprano Lucinda Cox lent Judas a surprising creepiness. She joined the alto Claire Wilkinson in singing their solo chorales with a choirboy purity, shorn of vibrato, which was most effective.

With only five singers, the chorales took on a madrigal quality, underpinned by Silas Wollston’s discreet organ-playing. The work finished with a long hymn of gratitude in triple time, “A little song of thanks for the bitter suffering of Jesus Christ”, in which the soul offers heartfelt repayment, however inadequate, an uplifting reminder that the death depicted was not the end.

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