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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

St Matthew Passion

King's College Choir Cambridge, Academy of Ancient Music, Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only 27 March 2020 ReleaseThis album is not yet available for download
Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: April 2019
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: 27 March 2020
Total duration: 163 minutes 36 seconds

Evangelista James Gilchrist tenor
Jesus Matthew Rose bass
Sophie Bevan soprano
David Allsopp countertenor
Mark Le Brocq tenor
William Gaunt bass

With its unfolding levels of symbolism, theological interpretation and—most striking of all—psychological insight, the St Matthew Passion is perhaps the most challenging and ambitious artwork on a Christian theme. This fine recording was made in the Chapel of King's College Cambridge over three days in April 2019.

The Passion story was represented in a musical-dramatic tradition long before the invention of opera and oratorio. But it was only a matter of time before these later dramatic genres would cross-fertilise with the earlier traditions. This began to happen towards the end of the seventeenth century, as librettists and composers increasingly embellished the Gospel texts with free arias, meditations and demanding instrumental obbligati. Many composers sought to capitalise on the operatic conventions that congregations would have experienced in the world of secular entertainment. Nevertheless, the Passion in this new oratorio style did not arrive in Leipzig until 1717 (at the modish Neue-Kirche), and the ageing Johann Kuhnau did not introduce an oratorio Passion at the Cantorate of the Thomasschule until 1721, thus shortly before Bach himself came to Leipzig (1723). So, one of the greatest ironies about Bach’s Passions is that their original audiences were far less familiar with the genre than many of us are today. Moreover—as is the case with virtually all Bach’s most celebrated music—we might have heard them many more times than did the original performers, or even Bach himself.

Bach’s Passions were performed during the afternoon Vespers 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 actualises a specific character within the represented world. But it is not difficult to understand some of the complaints about the new Passion genre from pious individuals in Lutheran Germany; Passions do, after all, borrow liberally from secular conventions such as dance and, especially, 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 of Matthew’s Passion narrative is the emphasis on dialogue form—necessitating the performing format of double chorus and orchestra. This rhetorical device allows for contrasting or even opposing viewpoints to be presented simultaneously and also to personify the various ‘voices’ within a single listener, as if 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 specific words that feature in later arias. Perhaps Picander and Bach hoped that the congregation would retain some of these expressions (e.g. ‘Sehet’, ‘Erbarm dich unser’, ‘seht die Geduld’, etc.) in the unconscious before hearing the corresponding aria much later. It is also highly likely that interested participants could have purchased the libretto in advance and were therefore able to come to the service prepared for the various theological themes and emotions that the overall Passion performance would traverse. The opening is cast as a dialogue between Christian believers and ‘the Daughters of Zion’ (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 a German chorale based on the Agnus Dei, ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’, sung by ripieno sopranos. Jesus 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 (and therefore referencing Revelation). In the work as a whole, Bach spins a dialogue between Old and New Testaments, then between these and the Lutheran tradition (e.g. the chorales), and, finally, between all these temporal layers and the listeners in their own time. It may well be that this sense of ongoing conversation is what has rendered this work so durable in later contexts, drawing in the listener to continue the conversation, whether within or outside the Christian tradition.

The dialogic element also serves to render the various crowd choruses more dramatic. In the context of Leipzig’s main churches, where only a very small proportion of the congregation would have been able to see the musicians, this might have given the performance a much more spatial, almost stereo, quality. In other words, the drama lies almost entirely in the sound rather than anything visual, and this would be compatible with the sense of the ‘real’ drama lying in the mind of the believer rather than in any represented character. This is a typically Lutheran contribution to western culture, by which the sound of the ‘Word’ and its interpretation encourage a sense of change and renewal. Bach took many of the standard operatic conventions and simply reworked them to reposition the normal focus on the staged drama within the individual’s soul (therefore, the recorded format is curiously authentic to the original dynamics of the work). This aspect of dynamic hearing is taken further in later meditative numbers, such as the tenor aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ [20], where the singer tells his listeners in Choir II how staying with Jesus will bring them all salvation; the choir’s entries become increasingly confident as their understanding grows, so that eventually they are able to finish the aria without the tenor’s help. When Jesus is arrested, one half of the forces, represented by soprano and alto soloists, sing of their sorrow at Jesus’s capture, while Choir II expresses the anger at his mistreatment; finally, the entire choral forces enter to express a desire for revenge against the betrayer (‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’). All this seems to mimic the train of thought (both split between two emotions and erupting into uncontrollable anger) that a contemporary witness and a modern believer might go through. Just a couple of minutes later, the theological dial is turned to end Part I, with the chorale ‘O Mensch, bewein’ [29]: in fact, all humans are inherently sinful, so it was in retrospect hypocritical to call for vengeance. Only by admitting this can the process of salvation even begin. The preacher who would have given the central sermon just after this point must surely have felt envious of the power with which Bach’s Passion setting created a theologically plausible process of emotions in real time, before he had even begun.

Emotions clearly play a strong part in the larger second half of the piece, which originally came after the sermon. Spiritual love is expressed by the opening dialogue by which the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs is turned to represent the bereft believer, comforted by her companions, who describe her as the ‘most beautiful among women’. The next arias explore steadfastness in the face of false accusations (‘Geduld’ [35]—with its jagged accompanying rhythms against which the tenor attempts to remain calm); the celebrated transference of Peter’s guilt to the believer in ‘Erbarme dich’ [39]; and the sense of failure, loss and the desire to reverse the transaction after Judas’s suicide. Then the meditative movements move on to themes of love and Jesus’s unconditional generosity, as if to change the overall emotional trajectory. This prepares for the final set of arias, which often relate to the individual’s assimilation and imitation of Jesus’s model (beginning with the superb aria, ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ [57], which takes its theme from the first imitator of Christ, Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry the cross). The final aria seems to represent a final assimilation of the theme of atonement: as the Lord is buried in the grave, his spiritual presence is buried in the believer’s heart (‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’) [65]. Here the deep oboes da caccia are fully reconciled with the strings, and the compound metre recalls the very first chorus. But all is now transformed: what was originally the tonality of E minor is now B flat major, the furthest distance possible in Bach’s tonal system.

If the emotional manipulation of the listener is crucially activated within the extensive and iterative arena of the aria (usually circling round a principal musical section which returns in various guises, often literally), the essence of the story itself lies in the sequence of recitatives and choruses, which together set Matthew’s original text. Here Bach excels himself in the dramatic presentation of the Evangelist’s text, which, in the third person (and therefore much more akin to novelistic narration than the conversational recitative of opera), seems to conjure up the entire story within our present. Although Jesus’s part accounts for a relatively small proportion of the music as a whole, his presence is rendered particularly acute through the addition of the string ‘halo’, something that is only dropped at the very end of Jesus’ life when—with his fully human suffering—he asks why God has forsaken him. Bach’s skill lies not only in the remarkable sequence of keys (covering something close to all the available tonalities) but also in the ways in which the very shape of the individual voices is stretched and inflected through the expressive control of narrational melody. Much the same is evident in the choruses, for instance where the call for crucifixion (‘Lass ihn kreuzigen!’) is set with uncomfortable chromaticism and leaps: it is as if the very distention of the tortured limbs is acted out in the larynx.

One aspect of Bach’s performance that may be considered is the way in which the piece might originally have been heard in relation to the libretto available to the congregation. The text only survives in a collection of Picander’s poetry from 1729, but 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 ‘after the woman has 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. There is some unevenness in this pattern, such as when the scene is very short (e.g. Judas’s betrayal [7], between the arias ‘Buß und Reu’ and ‘Blute nur’), or when the aria seems to burst into the middle of a scene (‘So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen’) [27]. 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’) [49]. 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 degree 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.

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 theme. It is thus not entirely surprising that Bach seems to have spent considerable time and care in preparing the work. He may have started work 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, performing it again in the early 1740s. In the event, such historical details might begin to seem rather trivial when this work—coming from a relatively obscure venue in eighteenth-century Europe—continues to provide an experience that is almost on the threshold of what is emotionally bearable.

John Butt © 2020

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