The evening ended with a spirited and insouciant Beethoven Fourth Symphony, in which the startlingly slow introduction (night?) got released into the brisk swing (of morning?) and never let up. Or down. Too bad Kavakos resorted to what I gather the BSO calls the "Ozawa" (rather than the "Levine") seating plan. So instead of having the first and second violins play their second-movement "duet" antiphonally, on opposite sides of the stage, Kavakos lumped all the violins together, and it was hard to hear this magical passage as a dialogue.

Handel and Haydn Society's St. Matthew Passion

The most ambitious musical undertaking of the past few weeks was the Handel and Haydn Society's Bach St. Matthew Passion, one of the monuments of Western music and maybe Bach's most humane major composition. H&H, America's oldest choral society, is revisiting works it introduced to this country. It first programmed excerpts from the St. Matthew in 1871, then presented its complete American premiere eight years later.

Playing Baroque music on period instruments in Symphony Hall remains questionable. These instruments were never intended to fill such a cavernous space. Music director Harry Christophers gets a "big enough" sound that also feels slightly underwhelming. But my main problems with this performance were more serious than just a question of volume. The St. Matthew Passion is more meditative than dramatic, though it certainly has intensely dramatic moments. These meditative passages — big choruses and extended solo arias by nameless characters (stand-ins for you and me) — represent the process of internalizing the central Christian narrative of the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion of Jesus. Parallel to these arias are the more public Lutheran chorales, hymns with which Bach's audience would already be familiar. All of these are imbedded in a dramatic narrative taken directly from the New Testament, with a tenor singing the "Evangelist" (Matthew) and a bass singing the role of Jesus. The challenge for the performers is to charge the meditations with an intensity and drama comparable to the actual story-telling.

That's largely where Christophers disappointed me. He's an animated conductor — full of body language, from the tips of his phrase-shaping fingers to the tips of his light-on-his-feet toes. He dips and glides, paces and lunges. But almost every gesture seemed local, disconnected. I missed a larger, more urgent, more personal vision of how everything goes together. Where was this nearly three-hour piece heading? What was it really about? The climactic chorus at the end of the long first part seemed lightweight in its bounciness. And most of the singing was mild and soft-focused, at times veering into melodrama rather than true urgency. I didn't hear a single consonant from the chorus until nearly the end of the first part, where they were finally spitting them out in their demand that Jesus not be bound. (The excellent Young Men's and Young Women's Choruses from H&H's Vocal Apprentice Program seemed less susceptible to this diction problem.)

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Related: Emmanuel’s late Mozart, NEC’s early Britten, BSO guest conductors, and Boston Lyric Opera’s The Inspector, Heaven!, Interview: Max Raabe, More more >
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