The Boston Symphony Orchestra does not often throw its collective weight behind the music of Bach, in part because the early music movement has staked its claim so decisively and influentially on this turf. The last time the composer's massive "St. Matthew" Passion appeared on a BSO program was 1998, under Seiji Ozawa, and one friend of mine still recalls the awkwardness of the fit.
The Passion returned to Symphony Hall Thursday night, this time under the baton of conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink, who had, rather remarkably, never led the work before. His first foray was not revelatory but it was certainly cogent and respectable. At 79, Haitink led the Passion as if he had nothing special to prove to either traditionalists yearning for the now-outmoded big-boned symphonic approach to Bach, or early-music aficionados who surely favor a lither, trimmer, more enunciated approach to this score.
With the confidence of the eminent conductor that he is, Haitink calmly spoke his own truth about this music, and his warm and dignified conception drew insights from both sides of the aisle. He clearly retains sympathies for the old-school symphonic Bach, but elements in his phrasing and sense of line made it apparent that he had not slept through the early music movement.
The soloists were a mixed bunch but the clear standout was tenor Ian Bostridge, whose Evangelist was an exquisitely drawn portrait of musical empathy delivered with a preternaturally silken tone, at once tender, chaste, elegant, and deeply expressive. Not a single phrase of his recitatives seemed to slip by uninflected, and one had to marvel at his dexterity, the way he could drain the color from his voice on a single syllable in a word like "crucify."
One wished the other soloists were up to his level, but this was not the case.
Thomas Bauer was capable but rather monochromatic as Jesus; bass-baritone Peter Harvey was solid but not more; and Steve Davislim had an attractive tenor but wielded it awkwardly. Soprano Marlis Petersen and mezzo Christianne Stotijn were stronger, and sang together beautifully in "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen."
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with warmth, breadth, and excellent clarity for a group of its size, and the PALS Children's Chorus added sparkle to the sound whenever they joined in Part I.
The woodwind playing (especially that of Mark McEwen, Robert Sheena, and Elizabeth Rowe) was outstanding throughout.