Boston Early Music Festival is underway, and this year’s theme is “Dreams & Madness.“ Some of the festival’s concerts fit neatly with the concept, others not so much. For example, where’s the madness in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a Good Friday service for devout 18th-century Leipziger Lutherans? Some might think it folly to perform the work with only one singer per voice part, as Scotland’s Dunedin Consort did at Jordan Hall on Monday evening under the direction of Kristian Bezuidenhout.
The suggestion that Bach may have intended his music to be performed with one singer per part caused a stir when Joshua Rifkin suggested it in 1981 (in Boston, no less), but some scholars have adopted that position since. What Bach would have in his heart preferred and what he actually worked with is still a topic of debate, but for listeners used to being swept away by the sound of the Passion, experiencing the one-per-voice-part approach can feel like hearing a wholly different work.
From the harpsichord, Bezuidenhout deftly carried out the double duties of continuo and conductor, the symmetrical orchestra played with plenty of heart, and as soloists, the eight singers were unassailable. Hugo Hymas was responsible for both the Evangelist’s zealous recitatives and the first choir’s tenor part, and rose admirably to his Herculean task. Bass Matthew Brook was a regal and eloquent Jesus; he’ll reprise the role when Handel and Haydn Society performs the Passion next spring. Alto Jess Dandy and violinist Sophie Gent shaped a gorgeous, affecting “Erbarme dich,” and on the other side of the stage, bass Matthias Helm easily shifted gears between smaller solo roles including Peter, Pilate, and Judas.
But in choral sections, some moments felt whiffed. While every current of counterpoint was laid bare, it sometimes wanted for dramatic punch. In the first choruses, such as the plunge into pathos that is “Kommt, ihr Töchter,” the singers sounded like they were saving themselves, but as the work progressed, they seemed less guarded. The second half, which includes the long emotional crescendo of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and burial, was by far the stronger.
The next evening at Jordan, Belgium-based ensemble Vox Luminis lived up to its name with a program that explored Bach’s family connection to the city of Arnstadt. The conductorless ensemble performed with 10 singers (including director Lionel Meunier, a bass), two continuo players, and an elite quartet of guests from Quicksilver Baroque Ensemble — these four with the night off from playing for the main-stage opera “Orlando generoso.”
Throughout the evening, all radiated confidence and knowledge. In the beginning of “Herzlich Lieb hab ich dich, o Herr,” a cantata by Buxtehude, the four sopranos produced a mighty unison melody that soared above Quicksilver’s busy strings; words ending with “st” or “cht,” the bane of many an ensemble singer, were rendered with precision. There was never any impression of holding back.
Luminis’s two-hour program included many wonders from the obscure to the familiar. A sacred dialogue by Johann Christoph Bach spotlighted Sebastian Myrus, whose oaky bass voice seemed to warm the room by a few degrees. Bach’s cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” was totally engrossing, as was the unannounced encore, Buxtehude’s sacred chaconne “Jesu, meines Lebens Leben.” I would have happily sat through another hour. (Good news; they’re coming back in November!)
If the 8 p.m. concerts have the most mass appeal, the 11 p.m. ones draw the most hardcore fans. Monday’s night owls were treated to the imagination of Zachary Wilder, who maybe couldn’t have designed a better program to show off his wondrous baroque tenor voice. A memorable hour of northern Italian lovers’ laments was spent with Wilder and Josep Maria Martí Duran, who accompanied the singer and performed foot-stomping instrumental showpieces on the baroque guitar and the throaty-sounding long-necked archlute.
“How many of you know Monteverdi’s” ‘Lamento della ninfa?’ ” Wilder asked the audience at one point, then launching into a tune by Antonio Brunelli with the same lyrics as the famous lament but a much jauntier melody, provoking bursts of conspiratorial giggles every time he bounced through the chorus.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
Dunedin Consort; Zachary Wilder and Josep Maria Martí Duran, June 10. Vox Luminis, June 11. At Jordan Hall. Festival continues through June 16. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.