Compassion - Matthew passion with BFZ

For the Cantemus Choir of Nyíregyháza, the Holy Week of 2024 was without a doubt one of the greatest musical experiences of recent years. Not that the singing team was bored before, both the children’s choir and the mixed choir had to enter many different invitations and concerts into the calendar. But the invitation from the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the direction of Iván Fischer gave the two choirs a difficult, exhausting but nevertheless life-changing experience.

Compassion – was the title and the motto of this year’s Budapest Festival Orchestra’s concert, or musical ceremony if you like, for the Holy Week. It was also a profound play on words, which, by referring to the St Matthew Passion of Bach, which served as the backbone of the programme, created a formal link between the programme and its content – the ‘message’ of the evening. The larger task was given to the Cantemus Choir. The 33 singers, led by conductor Soma Szabó, performed in Amsterdam, Brussels and four more times in Budapest in an original and thought-provoking programme conceived by Iván Fischer. The 50 members of the Cantemus Children’s Choir sang “only” at the three concerts at MÜPA. But this does not detract from the excellence of their performance. Both the audience and the professional reactions highlighted the choirs’ impressively high standard, but even more obvious and heart-warming were the appreciative looks and words of appreciation from Iván Fischer, the soloists and the BFO members.

 The programme, called Compassion, has a unique structure and concept. The Passion of St. Matthew was a kind of cross-section, with six entries representing the cultures and histories of different Asian peoples, and above all their sufferings. Fischer, who not only conducted and briefly commented on the work, was indeed concerned with the unbearable suffering and pain of entire peoples when he brought his vision to the stage. Of the musical episodes that punctuate the Passion story, three or three were allocated to each of the two parts of the work. In the first, the Agnus Dei movement of Armenian composer Tigran Mansuryan’s Requiem, a reminder of the ordeals endured by the Armenian people in the early 20th century and more recently, was performed by the Cantemus Choir and the BFO. The fate of the victims of the Gaza apocalypse was recalled by the Arab musician Taiseer Elias’ improvisations on the traditional Arabic lute, the “oud”. And the dead and missing from last year’s 7 October massacre and kidnappings were mourned with a moving rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Kaddisch for solo violin, performed by BFO first violinist Daniel Bard. After the intermission, the second part of the Passion was introduced by a raga on sitar, performed by Roopa Panesar, in memory of the tens of millions of people displaced from their homes in the Indian subcontinent in the 20th century, and also in memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who preached and practised non-violence and then became a victim of violence, to the tenor aria “Geduld, Geduld” (Patience, Patience). Then, with the distant hope of some kind of settlement to the Arab-Jewish conflict that has raged for three quarters of a century, Taiseer Elias and the Israeli Jewish ensemble Zohar Fresco, playing the frame drums, provided uplifting moments of improvisation and embrace. The final ‘interlude’ was a children’s choral setting of a poignant poem written by a Jewish child in the ghetto saying goodbye to his parents, Sait gesund (Be Healthy), composed for the occasion by Iván Fischer himself

The passion parts were chosen to require only a quartet of soloists. They were Anna-Lena Elbert (soprano), Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) and Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass). In addition to the above performers, the concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 20 March featured violinist Janine Jansen and the Dutch National Children’s Choir, and the concert at the Bozar concert hall in Brussels on 21 March featured a special choir of children who had fled their country. Six concerts: Amsterdam, Brussels, Budapest (MÜPA 3) and Budapest (Várkert Bazár). Challenging and moving, uplifting and uplifting, concerts that took the fun out of the music, and brought back the “Renaissance” joy and faith of singing, with extraordinary musicians. So the answer to the “poetic” question in the title (Shall we go again?) can only be one. Yes! Let’s go again, because for such concerts, such venues, such audiences, such artists, it is worth doing this. It’s really only worth it!

(Szilárd Szilágyi)