‘St. Luke Passion’ Opens Salzburg Fest Under Nagano

Kent Nagano leads the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Krakow Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw Boys’ Choir (in red), and
soloists in Penderecki’s ‘St. Luke Passion’ at the Salzburg Festival. (Concert photos: Marco Borrelli)
By Arthur Kaptainis

SALZBURG – Three performances of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion in three cities in seven days: This suggests a collective plural, a passion of Passions. Having heard them all, I can testify to the propriety of the usage and the undiminished worthiness of this opus, at least when it is realized with the commitment and technical command summoned by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on July 20 for the official opening – the ouverture spirituelle – of the 2018 Salzburg Festival.

Kent Nagano remains a master of modern music.

Recognition must immediately be added of the Kraków Philharmonic Choir, the Warsaw Boys’ Choir, three fine vocal soloists, and a suitably dramatic narrator as the Evangelist. While the orchestra is far from a backup band, the Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam (to give it its full and official title) remains substantially a choral work, with four a cappella movements and at least as many arias. Boys are entrusted with celestial interludes and even speak the final words of Christ (consummatum est, “It is finished”). Adult choristers are more protean, sometimes reflecting solemnly on the fate of humanity, sometimes mocking their Savior with the harshest non-pitched utterances you could hope to hear. This is a passionate Passion.

It is also a landmark of musical modernism – or its repudiation, depending on your point of view. First performed in 1966 in the rebuilt Münster Cathedral, the St. Luke Passion can be heard as the culmination of the Polish composer’s avant-garde period, or the work in which he recognized the value of the past and started his rearward trek to tonality.

Repeated hearings incline me to the latter opinion. Most of the writing, to be sure, is atonal, whether polyphonic or chordal. Analysts will point to a pair of 12-note rows, one of which ends B-A-C-H. The rows are subjected to some of the expected serial procedures, but their sighing, stepwise motion and self-referential structure (the first six notes of each are simply raised a tritone and repeated) make them seem thematic – and human.

Soloists included Sarah Wegener, soprano, and Matthew Rose, bass.

Quiet lines for lower strings in the Passacaglia movement bring to mind Bartók; unison chants have a Gregorian ring. There is even an earworm in the form of a repeated five-note motif accompanying the words Deus meus in Christ’s plaintive initial aria with chorus. The rising whole tone and semitone seem to encapsulate the major-minor division of the musical universe while expressing with supreme economy both the grief and hope of the Passion story.

Then there are the unabashed major triads in Part 2, notably the repeated E major chord on the words Deus veritatis with which Penderecki brings this weighty work to an upbeat conclusion. Unlike the C major chord that ends Penderecki’s otherwise atonal Polymorphia of 1961, this cadence is harmonically prepared for. Still, it surprised the audience into silence at the MSO performance of July 14 at the Lanaudière Festival outside Montreal (where the MSO Chorus as prepared by Andrew Megill did the honors) and was probably  responsible in part for the awestruck response of the Salzburg crowd. If the critical concepts of God’s presence and truth are most aptly expressed as major triads, this constitutes something of an endorsement of tonality as a system.

Baritone Lucas Meachem sang the part of Jesus.

None of this is to deny the force and originality of the extended techniques for which the St. Luke Passion remains something of a classic cookbook. There are glissandi, clusters, and quartertones. Drummers bang maniacally when chaos is called for. Choristers chatter, snarl, shout, and howl as well as sing. Often these effects are in the foreground, but they can be subtle like the unpitched hiss on the name “Judas.”

The orchestra of 88 is used selectively. Oboes are absent; where you might expect clarinets you get two alto saxophones. Forget about glowing Wagnerisms from the six horns: their job is to sustain clusters within a narrow ambitus. Much of the melody resides in the lower registers. A contrabassoon and bass clarinet lurk in the depths, and an alto flute has ghostly obbligatos. Strings are built from the bottom up. Strange to say, a full squad of MSO violins crossed the Atlantic to perform less than two minutes of music. “Rarely have I played so little in a piece I liked so much,” commented MSO concertmaster Andrew Wan.

The point is that the various materials should make a fluid and dramatic whole, as they did under Nagano’s exacting baton, both in the modern ICE Congress Centre in Kraków on July 18 and in the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg. Decades after his work as an amanuensis to Olivier Messiaen, the 66-year-old American conductor – music director of the MSO since 2006 – remains a master of modern music.

Slawomir Holland, in an enclave above the choir, was the Evangelist.

The Salzburg concert was the most impressive of the three. It is hard to pick highlights because the elements moved forward with such compelling emotional logic. The drama of Jesus and Pontius Pilate before the ruthless crowd led to a frightening fortissimo climax of “Crucify him!” (in Latin) at the end of Part 1. It says something about the composer’s good judgment that he suspends the onomatopoeia in Part 2 at the moment of Crucifixion and lets a meditative aria for soprano on a non-scriptural hymn, Crux fidelis, fill in the spiritual space.

Sarah Wegener, who is described as British-German, sang radiantly in all three venues. The American baritone Lucas Meachem was a vivid presence as Jesus, even if he had to strain to reach some of the falsetto heights (written originally with Andrzej Hiolski in mind). It is an interesting feature of this Passion that Jesus expresses fully human anger toward Judas before evolving toward acceptance and transcendence.

The English bass Matthew Rose was ripe-toned and stately as Peter and Pilate. Sławomir Holland, seated in an enclave above the choir, made timely spoken entries as the Evangelist. Latin was no obstacle to expression. Choristers rendered forthright unisons (such as the inaugural shout of “Crux”) or quiet dissonances with equal authority. They were supple in the layered Stabat Mater, although this pre-existing movement of independent fame strikes me as too minimal to sustain its seven-minute length. Chorus directors Teresa Majka-Pacanek (adults) and Krzysztof Kusiel-Moroz (boys) should be acknowledged for their good work.

Krzysztof Penderecki, center, took the stage to loud applause after the performance.

One component of the Salzburg success was the setting – the Felsenreitschule, a former riding school carved into rock, which, like so many spaces not constructed for musical performances, works splendidly in this capacity. Acoustics were vibrant, and the austere interior had the look of an early Christian sanctuary. Only candles were missing. (The stone arcades familiar to Salzburg fans had been filled in to accommodate the coming production of Salome by the Italian director Romeo Castellucci.)

While the psycho-acoustics of this impressive performance are lost, the audio was captured for a live recording on the BIS label. Applause was loud and sustained, especially when the 84-year-old composer, who looks much younger, took the stage. The performance lasted a little more than 67 minutes. Perfect for one sitting.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.