Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion: Fretwork presents a rarity for Good Friday at the Wigmore Hall  

7 April 2023

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

A Passion written half a century before Bach’s own.

It felt impossible to attend this performance of Johann Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion, which existed in manuscript by 1663 before being published in 1672, without thinking of J. S. Bach’s written some 55 years later. Although comparing the two works could be seen as churlish because no one originally listening to the Sebastiani would have had any notion of what was to come, it is not entirely irrelevant to do so. This is not only because hearing the Sebastiani makes us realise just how revolutionary the Bach would have felt to its first audiences, but also because it appears that the earlier work in itself represented a significant advance on what had preceded it.

The idea of setting the texts of the gospels that describe Jesus’ final days to music goes back to the 4th century, but the Reformation provided an impetus for telling the story in new ways. The first setting in German combining monophonic and polyphonic music came in 1561, and in the 17th century the adoption of Italian style recitative saw a more declamatory style established. 

Sebastiani himself was born in Weimar in 1622 but came to Königsberg (present day Kaliningrad, but then in the farthest reaches of Prussia) in 1650, before being appointed court Kapellmeister to the Elector of Brandenburg in 1663. To our ears, his Passion may seem very simple, but music does not always have to be complex to be beautiful and the ability to grasp exactly what is happening at every point from a technical perspective is certainly not a negative. Sebastiani arranged for the voices to be accompanied by 4 viols and 2 violins, all supported by bass continuo (in this instance provided by an organ, with Sebastiani favouring either that or a harpsichord and stipulating that it may include lutes or theorbos). 

All of the instruments play for the choruses, but the Evangelist’s lines are accompanied by 3 of the viols, and Jesus’ own by the violins. While Bach sees the Evangelist accompanied in a secco recitative style, here the 3 viol parts do impose a more strict rhythm on the voice. At the same time, however, the 2 violin parts interact in a way that is highly interesting. Far from one always sticking to the same rhythm as the other, the small flourishes that regularly come from each give the impression at least of the pair completing each others’ phrases, thus revealing quite a sophisticated level of interaction.

“…hearing the Sebastiani makes us realise just how revolutionary the Bach would have felt to its first audiences…”

Although this ‘formula’ is obeyed for the vast majority of the piece, moments of excitement do arise on those occasions when it is varied or broken. At one point fairly early on, the Evangelist merely proclaims ‘Er sprach’ before Jesus sings, so to ensure there is still an obvious contrast between the viols of one character and the violins of the other, there is a short flurry on the viols before the Evangelist actually delivers his two words. There are also periods, usually when several characters such as the Evangelist, Jesus and Pilot sing in close succession, that are supported by just the organ. In this context, that virtually equates to being unaccompanied, and it allows short ‘exchanges’ to move swiftly, without being weighed down by the need to mark out each person’s character with different instrumentation. Interestingly, Pilate is one individual who is sometimes accompanied by the violins and sometimes by the viols.

As the Evangelist, Hugo Hymas revealed a highly accomplished tenor that let the lines ring out in exactly the right way, while, as Jesus, Jimmy Holliday displayed a secure and striking bass. All other parts, such as Judas, Caiphas, Pilate and Pilate’s Wife were taken well by the other 3 singers, soprano (or cantus) Lucinda Cox, mezzo-soprano (or altus) Clare Wilkinson and tenor Simon Wall. Like many other Passions, the work features several chorales that utilise pre-existing compositions, here accompanied by viols and organ. There is actually a great interest in hearing ‘O Welt, ice muss dich lassen’, which employs Heinrich Isaac’s tune ‘Innsbruck, ice muss rich lassen’, sung by just a single voice because it feels so unusual to us. However, as the performance goes on, the exact same make-up for the delivery of all of the chorales starts to feel a little wearing. This, to an extent, relates to the piece as a whole, which, when we are used to hearing Bach, can all feel a little too straight forward and similar. 

This does not, however, stop the work from being enjoyable and worthwhile in its own right, and it stands as an important piece in the development of such Passions. If we are inclined to view it as slightly basic, it still represents quite an advance on what had preceded it, given that Thomas Seele’s St Matthew Passion of 1642 had accompanied the Evangelist with continuo for the first time and 2 melody instruments. It also cannot be classed as an ‘outlier’ in their development since Schütz’s 3 Passion settings of the 1660s, while being entirely unaccompanied, follow the same shape of the division between chorus and recitation as Sebastiani’s.

With Sebastiani being keen for other churches to perform his Passion, it was printed in 1672. Far more than either of Bach’s, where the resources required to play them would have restricted who could do so, one can picture any community in 17th century Germany with several decent musicians performing it, and hence many congregations gathering in their local churches to hear it. Nevertheless, although the piece may have been played by many, there is nothing quite like hearing it performed by an ensemble with the calibre of Fretwork. As a result, enjoying this rarity on Good Friday could only lead to thoughts of what other Passions we might have the good fortune to experience in future years. 

• Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble’s 2018 recording of Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion is available on the CPO label.  

• For details of all of Fretwork’s recordings and future events visit its website.

• For details of all upcoming concerts at the venue visit the Wigmore Hall website.

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Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion: Fretwork presents a rarity for Good Friday at the Wigmore Hall