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The award-winning Dunedin Consort gives a remarkable performance of the emotive St Matthew Passion in Bach's final performing version (c1742).
Bach’s Passions were performed during the afternoon Vesper service on Good Friday, their two parts replacing the cantata and Magnificat which were normally presented on either side of the sermon. Like Bach’s cantatas, the Passions assimilate something of the sermon’s function, since the free poetry of the arias, ariosos and framing choruses provide both a commentary and an emotional interpretation of the biblical text in the world of the listener. This is something quite different from the function of an aria in opera, which normally develops a specific character within the represented world. But it is not difficult to understand some of the complaints about the new Passion genre from congregations in Lutheran Germany; Passions do, after all, borrow liberally from secular conventions such as dance and, particularly, opera.
Particularly striking in the construction of both the free poetry (by the Leipzig poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici, or ‘Picander’) and Bach’s musical setting is the emphasis on dialogue form—necessitating the performing format of double chorus and orchestra. This rhetorical device allows for contrasting or even opposing moods to be presented simultaneously (e.g. ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’/‘Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’), complementary viewpoints (‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesu hin’/‘Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen’) or a dialogue between a single speaker and a group (‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’/‘So schlafen unsre Sünden ein’). All of these devices serve to personify the various ‘voices’ within a single listener, acting out one’s own reactions and conflicts.
The most impressive of the dialogue numbers is the opening chorus, which sets out some of the topics that the meditative numbers are to cover; indeed it seeds several words that open later arias. It is cast as a dialogue between Christian believers and ‘the Daughter of Zion’ (one of the allegorical personages from the Song of Songs, reinterpreted as contemporary witnesses to Jesus’s suffering). The theme of Solomon’s love is recast in a Christian context with Jesus as the loving bridegroom and the church as his bride. A third element is introduced with the German chorale on the Agnus Dei, ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’, sung by ripieno sopranos. Christ is thus portrayed as an innocent sacrificial lamb, an image that points towards the Apocalypse when Christ as a lamb rules the New Jerusalem, a bridegroom to the (‘feminine’) community of all believers. In the work as a whole, Bach spun a dialogue between Old and New Testaments, between these and the Lutheran tradition (e.g. the traditional chorales) and between all these and the believer of his own time. It may well be that this sense of continual conversation is what has rendered this work so durable in later contexts, drawing in the listener to continue the conversation, whether within or without the Christian tradition.
Bach shared something of the encyclopaedic urge of his age, and compiled virtually every possible musical form available: recitatives (accompanied and secco), arioso, aria (including dance and concerto elements), chorales, chorale fantasias, choruses and motets. Together with two elements unusual in Bach’s works—the doubled forces and the string ‘halo’ for Christ’s utterances—these render it even more ambitious than his more brutally immediate John Passion.
With its unfolding levels of symbolism, theological interpretation and—most striking of all—psychological insight, the Matthew Passion is perhaps the most challenging and ambitious artwork on a Christian subject. It is thus not entirely surprising that Bach seems to have spent considerable time and care in preparing the work. He possibly began writing it as early as 1725 but clearly did not finish or perfect it in time for the Good Friday performance (the John Passion had to be repeated). Bach did not present the Matthew Passion until 1727 and recast it in its most familiar form in 1736. This recording is the first to present the work with Bach’s final revisions of scoring, as performed around 1742.
The debates about Bach’s vocal scoring have endured for over a quarter of a century. There is thus no need to repeat here the details of the thesis that Bach performed the majority of his choral works with a single voice to each part (as first proposed by Joshua Rifkin, on the basis of the surviving sets of performance parts). Indeed, there have been several successful performances and at least one recording of this Passion with this scoring.
The details of the debate notwithstanding, it is striking how well the Matthew Passion, in particular, is served by using eight principal voices (thus four in each of the two choirs). The work explores many forms of dialogue, as if to draw the listener into a conversation that occurs in real time. Not only are there the sections written in genuine double-choir texture, but there are several other combinations, such as one voice against four, or a dialogue between two singers in the first choir that becomes part of a larger dialogue with the four singers of the second choir. When all eight voices come together for certain choruses and all the chorales, the effect is quite different from performances in which the voices of each choir are already massed. The solo scoring also allows for a form of expression and delivery that is more commonly associated with solo singing than choral performance. When these voices come together as disciples or those baying for Jesus’s blood, we hear them as individuals constituting a group rather than simply as a crowd.
Another point to emerge from the vocal scoring is the way the four main singers, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the four singers of choir two, become familiar to us as the piece progresses. Hearing them take several roles, both in the past of the story and in the present of the performance, enhances their actual reality to us. Given the large amount of aria material representing a contemporary response to the story, these singers are sharing our reactions, as observers, while also bringing the past to presence. It is almost as if the essence of the Passion story becomes real in our own time through the intermediary representation of these eight singers, who increasingly seem to belong to us rather than merely to some distant world.
The case of the Evangelist and Jesus is especially significant. In the opening chorus we hear the principal tenor singing as one of the allegorical ‘Daughters of Zion’, calling us to lament. Then, by beginning the recitative (now in the third person) he brings a story to life, dipping into the past as a (first person) voice in the chorus, then back into our present in the chorales and his aria (where he promises to ‘stand by Jesus’, precisely as he does physically in the actual performance). By going precisely against operatic convention, the moments when he brings personages to presence (including Jesus himself) give us a realism that is all the more striking for its intermittent nature. Indeed, the use of third-person Gospel narrative combined with many other voices, past and present, renders the experience rather more like a novel in sound than a straightforward theatrical representation. The case of Jesus is even more striking, in that the principal bass can also be heard as a human in the present, then as someone who can be either friend or foe to Jesus in the choruses. Towards the end he sings two arias that relate specifically to the human assimilation of Jesus, first at the point where Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross (thus, literally, the first imitator of Christ), and secondly in the wish to ‘entomb’ Jesus in his own heart. Who better then to exemplify the imitation and assimilation of Jesus than the singer who has been taking his role all along?
If the type of realism implied by the scoring of the eight voices is achieved through a sort of anti-theatricality, this is made all the more striking by the way the remaining historical personages are represented in Bach’s scoring. These roles are split between three further singers who—according to the layout of Bach’s performing parts—play no further role in the performance (not even the chorales; and the two sopranos ‘in ripieno’ added to the first and last numbers of Part One seem to sing nothing else in the piece). The highest of the three takes the role of Pilate’s wife and both the servant girls; of the two bass parts, one takes the roles of Judas and Priest I, the other the roles of Peter, Pilate, Caiphas and Priest II. Thus, in the course of the performance, these singers seem like disembodied voices from a Palestine long in the past and, consequently, set in relief the consistent presence of the main voices (and specifically the presence of Jesus, who, at least for a Christian, is far more alive in our present than the likes of Judas, Peter or Pilate). Given the difficulty of these short roles and the lack of any vocal preparation, it may well be that Bach expected them to sound awkward and incompetent (an element of historical accuracy we decided not to duplicate in this recording).
In following Bach’s vocal scoring more directly than in most previous performances (even those with single voices) we have also decided to recreate the instrumentation that Bach employed in his last performance of the Matthew Passion. Most significant here seems to be his substitution of a harpsichord for the organ in orchestra two. This has normally been explained by the fact that the second main organ, at the other end of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, had fallen into disrepair. But it is not likely that this instrument could ever have performed a continuo function, given the distance involved, and, in any case, Bach could easily have employed a positive organ for choir two. Given that the harpsichord features in several other late performances by Bach, we might then infer that it was included here to provide a genuine contrast of texture rather than merely to serve as an emergency measure.
Bach also added a viola da gamba to choir two in his last performance, a different part (and, presumably, player) from that of choir one. This is for the tenor 2 recitative and aria (‘Mein Jesus schweigt/Geduld’) where the viola da gamba is added to the existing continuo of violoncello and violone (and oboes in the recitative). In other words, the gamba seems to be an addition rather than the substitution that is often assumed. This gives both numbers a rather grittier sonority, perhaps portraying more vividly the taunting against which the beleaguered tenor calls for patience.
Listening in Leipzig
One final aspect of Bach’s performance that we have considered here is the way in which the piece may originally have been heard in relation to the libretto available to the congregation. The text survives in a collection of Picander’s poetry from 1729, where its layout is entirely compatible with surviving libretti for other Bach vocal works. All that the libretto presents is the text of the free poetry of arias and meditative choruses, each one cued by a reference to the point reached in Matthew’s story. Thus the first recitative-aria pair occurs ‘When the woman had anointed Jesus’.
The original listener would presumably have read each aria text while listening to the familiar gospel narrative (interspersed with chorales, which would have been very familiar, but which are not listed in the libretto), drawing each of the fifteen scenes together in the expectation of the meditation to come. We have thus tried to give some sense of the way the work falls into scenes, each culminating in an aria. There are clearly some exceptions to this pattern, such as when the scene is very short (e.g. Judas’s betrayal, between the arias ‘Buß und Reu’ and ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’), or when the aria seems to burst into the middle of a scene (‘So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen’). Most striking is the way the renewed call for Jesus’s crucifixion bursts in at the end of what is arguably the most beautiful aria, relating to Jesus’s supreme act of love (‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’). Here we get the sense of a scene that has been interrupted by the aria, and the return to brutality is surely one of the most disturbing moments in the history of western music. With the recurrence of the chorus ‘Laß ihn kreuzigen’ a tone higher, there is a sense of intensification, but also perhaps of the change wrought by the sentiment of the aria: we recognise it as precisely the same music, yet every note is different.
Trying to follow Bach’s vocal scoring and the instrumentation of his last performance is not done in the name of a sort of pious literalism that condemns every other approach to the realm of inauthenticity. It is rather an attempt to explore the possibilities for creative expression within a particular set of historical parameters (which can thereby become opportunities). These are thus very much the starting point for performance rather than the goal to which it is directed. In the event, historical details might begin to seem rather trivial if the performance reveals this work—coming from a relatively obscure venue in eighteenth-century Europe—to provide a musical experience that is almost on the threshold of what is emotionally bearable.
John Butt © 2008