Poignant Baroque ‘St. Matthew’ Gets An Airing At Last

The Boston Early Music Festival presented what was believed to be the North American premiere of Johann Sebastiani's 'Passion According to Saint Matthew.'
The Boston Early Music Festival performed Johann Sebastiani’s ‘Passion According to Saint Matthew’ at Jordan Hall.
By Adeline Sire

BOSTON – Lutenist Paul O’Dette first encountered Johann Sebastiani’s Passion According to Saint Matthew in 1984 in England. He heard it on a BBC broadcast of a London Baroque performance. “I thought it was so beautiful, and moving, and unusual,” he says.

Paul O'Dette first heard Sebastiani's piece three decades ago.
Lutenist Paul O’Dette first heard Sebastiani’s piece 30 years ago.

The piece is unusual in many ways indeed, as Boston audience members may have heard on Good Friday (April 18), when Boston Early Music Festival’s vocal and chamber ensembles performed what O’Dette believes is this Passion’s first complete North American performance at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. BEMF co-artistic director O’Dette was at the helm with co-director Stephen Stubbs. Both played theorbo.

Sebastiani (1622-1683) is not among the better-known figures of the German Baroque. He was, however, an accomplished cantor at the cathedral of Königsberg (today Russia’s Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea) and court Kapellmeister there. By some accounts, he studied in Italy, where he may have Italianized his name, though scholars are unsure of his actual birth name.

O’Dette had been trying to perform Sebastiani’s Saint Matthew Passion for many years. After he heard the BBC broadcast, O’Dette intended to produce the piece with his students, but he lacked the right instrumental and vocal setup to do so until 1997. Alas, on the eve of the performance, the musician singing the Evangelist came down with severe laryngitis, and Sebastiani’s Passion would be on hold again, until April 18.

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah sang the numerous chorales.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah sang the many chorales.

The piece, written around 1663, has an unusual setting compared to more familiar Passions of the later Baroque, such as Bach’s own Saint Matthew. It is close in style to the music of Heinrich Schütz, an older and prominent contemporary of Sebastiani’s. To best describe it, O’Dette says: “It’s a little bit as if you had a 16th-century sacred vocal motet with somebody declaiming text at the same time.” That’s in part because while there are no arias, the recitatives have great instrumental and melodic texture. At the April 18 concert, a lush accompaniment of four violas da gamba supported those recitatives sung by the Evangelist, a role that went to tenor James Taylor. He brought energy and a clear, rhythmic enunciation to the wordy part.

The viol consort – headed by Laura Jeppesen – played throughout the piece, along with an ample continuo section including organ or harpsichord and theorbos. The instruments created a mellow sound in the symphonias of the Passion, musical interludes whose ornate style revealed Sebastiani’s Italian side.

It is worth noting that Sebastiani was the first to use liturgy chorales in a Passion. O’Dette referred to them as “the greatest hits of Lutheran chorales” because everyone in the congregation would have known them. This set a tradition that Bach and Telemann, among others, would draw upon. The difference here it that they are not composed for four voices, but for a solo soprano. At this performance, mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah carried the daunting task, singing more than a dozen chorales. Her youthful and light timbre sailed through this demanding part with great fluidity. At times, her delicate voice echoed that of a young male soprano, as churches would have used in the 1600s. Some of her most moving passages came at the end in the “Song of Praise for the bitter suffering of Jesus Christ.” She displayed great range, from a meaty middle to subtle pianos in the high register, remarkably so in the German verse “Though I devote myself fully with everything I have, What repayment can that be?”

Bass João Fernandes sang the role of Jesus.
Bass João Fernandes sang the role of Jesus.

Because Sebastiani focused his Passion on the words more than the musical-dramatic effect, the overall sound is subdued and introspective, a quality O’Dette sees as “quietly poignant.” That could also best describe the performance of bass João Fernandes, who sang Jesus with solemnity and depth. He was accompanied by violins that softened the brutality of his story. Jason McStoots, an omnipresent tenor in the Boston early music scene, stood out as a bright and fiery Pontius Pilate.

Since Sebastiani’s Passion was written for church service, the score includes breaks for text readings and a sermon. In those breaks, O’Dette inserted pieces by the composer’s German contemporaries. Right after the scene of Peter’s denial, the ensemble flowed into Johann Rosenmüller’s Sonata Seconda in E minor for two violins and continuo. The piece highlighted the virtuosic skills of violinists Robert Mealy and Cynthia Roberts. The sonata is rich in flourishes and rapid-fire passages, but kept with the tone of the Passion. It ended on a muted, velvet chord, which led into the intermission.

Ian Howell excelled in a cantata by Johann Christoph Bach.
Ian Howell excelled in a cantata by Johann Christoph Bach.

The next “place-holders” were an Intrada and Lamento for viols by David Funck, and later on a vocal Lamento by Johann Christoph Bach, (an older cousin of Johann Sebastian) that featured countertenor Ian Howell. While Howell didn’t shine as Judas in the Passion, he was completely in his element in “Ach dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,” a superbly expressive cantata whose text is drawn from the Psalms and Lamentations of Jeremiah. It was so stylish and voluptuous that it seemed particularly extroverted next to Sebastiani’s “quietly poignant” music.

With its nimble and rich choruses, expressive recitatives and chorales, Sebastiani’s Passion is a valuable Baroque composition that deserved to be heard. So how many more great Passions lay dormant, waiting to be dusted off and performed? O’Dette says “there are literally hundreds of Passion settings by very good composers from the 17th and 18th centuries.” He points out that Telemann himself wrote a whopping 48 Passions. Few, if any, are ever performed in North America. “There are lots of these settings that would enrich our lives if we only looked beyond the most famous pieces. The challenge is to encourage the public to go to experience new things that they don’t know.”

That’s a challenge O’Dette and his colleagues seem eager to take on.

Adeline Sire is an arts journalist and radio producer specializing in music and culture, in the Boston area. She is a contributor to the quarterly magazine Early Music America and is a former producer for the BBC-PRI-WGBH international news program The World. Twitter: @AdelineSire