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St Matthew Passion

Bach St Matthew Passion: Beginning of Komm, süsses Kreuz

This month, I am very fortunate to be part of an extremely special performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Unlike usual ensembles, which present this work as a concert piece, Opera Queensland is staging the performance.

Brendan Joyce, leader of Camerata of St John’s, is leading the ensemble while Lindy Hume,  Opera Queensland's artistic director is directing the performance. According to Brendan, previous performances of this version of the work were very well received by both audience and critics.

For the next three weeks, I will be in Brisbane, where I will rehearse with the soloists (see website), the orchestra (Camerata of St. John's) and the choir. In addition to the solo parts for the gamba (Komm, süsses Kreuz and Geduld), the conductor Graham Abbott, has requested that I be responsible for all recitatives. This too, is not the usual way this music is usually performed. However, having worked with different conductors in the past, I can see why he might have done this.

Too often I have seen conductors asking cellists to perform in a certain way, a way that, to me, only seems comfortable with the underhand bow grip of the viol. Yes, this is quite difficult to explain, but I believe the underhand bow grip allows for more varied articulation than the overhand.  Of course, the gamba is not quite capable of pulling-off some of the extremely cellistic parts in the music, but likewise the cello would not be able to play Komm, süsses Kreuz with quite the same panache.

Komm, süsses Kreuz is one of those pieces that a gamba players train for when they are studying in conservatory. Because of this piece, St Matthew Passion is usually the only gig that gamba players get in Europe during the period approaching Easter. The wonderful thing about this aria is that it is truly idiomatic for the instrument. It may have been originally written for the lute—I believe Bach wrote it as a lute aria before changing his mind—but it falls so nicely under the hand. It does, however, take some time to learn. It's not one of those pieces most student gamba players could perform with one week's notice.

As I've grown with the piece, I've learnt to make it more 'süss' than 'kreuz'. I used to play it quite quick, but now I like to slow it down to bring out all the detail; the harmonies are too complex to simply gloss over. With so many four-note chords, it would be such a waste to simply arpeggiate away without giving these chords time to resonate properly; resonate in the same as it would on a lute.

I am certainly looking forward to this few weeks of what may be the most artistically fulfilling time of the year. Details of the performance can be found at Opera Queensland's website.