Despite an historically inaccurate interpretation by Charles Munch, Bach's St. Matthew Passion received a generally good performance yesterday from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, five soloists, the Harvard Glee Club, and the Radcliffe Choral Society. In most places not up to the exacting standards set by Hermann Scherchen on Westminster records, Mr. Munch's rendition was marred seriously by his treatment of Bach as Verdi, and by the unfortunate deletion of many beautiful arias and chorales. He also cut parts of reciatatives, which are essential to the full meaning of the story of the Passion and of the work.
Although it is drama--and great drama--the Passion is not Otello. For its fullest effect, it should be led with precision rather than exaggeration and be given a Baroque, not Romantic treatment. One of the egregious examples of this misinterpretation was Richard Burgin's syrupy violin solo in the soprano aria "Erbarme dich." It sounded more like Liszt than Bach.
Munch cut, among other numbers, the recitatives describing the suicide of Judas and the love of Mary Magdalene, the lovely bass aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein," and the masterful tenor aria "Geduld, geduld."
Munch's exclusion of several soprano and alto parts, however, seemed not such a bad idea, since Saramae Endich and Florence Kopleff turned out to be not in the same league as Adele Addison and Martha Lipton, who often appear with the B.S.O. The other soloists, however, performed excellently. As the Evangelist, Hughes Cuenod stood out, his lyric tenor voice reaching every corner of Symphony Hall, although he began to tire in part two. Mack Harrell sang Jesus with great expressiveness; the most tender moment of the whole afternoon as it should have been, was his "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!"
The most consistently good music-making of the performance was the singing provided by the Glee Club and the Choral Society. Their entrances were crisp, their diction clear (including every umlaut), and their pitch perfect. Their dramatic "Barabbam" at the turning point of the drama was frightening, although Mr. Munch spoiled part of its effect by having the organist hold the chord for ten seconds--perhaps the longest quarter note in history.
The overall effect of the concert, despite its shortcomings, was that of a deeply moving, supremely beautiful work of art, which the baroque St. Matthew Passion certainly is. Not even Mr. Munch, with his unduly Romantic approach to the score could destroy that.