Saturday, 30 March 2013

Matthew's Passion

29 March 2013
'Mache dich mein Herze rein', sung by Thomas Quasthoff.

An attempt at reproducing a performance Bach might have heard proves less than authentic regarding the truths of the work itself. 

This performance was something of an extreme in period practice, and while it was worth experiencing, it didn’t capture the greatness of this masterpiece. 

Apparently replicating the conditions of a 1729 vespers performance arranged presumably by Bach himself, there was a thought-provoking sermon before part two, and congregational hymns before each part. This conceit worked until the end, when not only was there another hymn, but a motet also, which while beautiful quite ruined the supreme finality of the Passion’s ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’. 

Even if this gross artistic blunder was actively approved, rather than endured, by the composer, that would be no reason for repeating the mistake now. 

Listening to a back-slapping celebration of historically-informed performance on BBC Radio 3 today, I could appreciate that the effort to perform works as the composer might have expected to hear them has been beneficial; but in this Passion, at least, there are surely various satisfying ways to perform it, and the larger, more romantic performances of old take the work more seriously. 

This is the grandest, most solemn artwork in our tradition. Listening to it with reduced forces (choral, vocal and orchestral) gives a sense of lightness and vigour more appropriate to the Messiah. Contemplating the meaning of Jesus’ death – avoided entirely in Handel’s masterpiece – brought out the weightiest side of Bach, and this should be reflected in performance. 

Perhaps a faster Passion, timewise, is considered sensible. But this avoids the challenge to the conductor and performers, for the great slow Passions of old recordings do not seem to take longer than the faster versions. It’s one of the oddities of music. 

This Passion got off to a terrible start, with an opening chorus that sounded light and chaotic, whereas when done differently it can be overwhelming, and yet somehow, magically, not so overwhelming that the rest of the work suffers in comparison. 

Certainly the rest of the work was an improvement in this performance, and generally the solo arias and recitatives did benefit from the intimacy of the setting. 

My feelings were mixed over the chorales. The setting made sense of them: the sense of a congregation was clear. But they were treated perfunctorily, whereas in better performances they add cumulatively to the Passion’s effect. 

And what is that effect? The sermon helpfully highlighted Jesus’ basic passivity. He is not a tragic figure in the usual sense – as he says, he could escape his fate anytime he wanted to.  

The mystery of this fate, whether his sacrifice is needed, his anguish both in Gethsemene and on when crucified, are captured both in the apostle’s text and in the surrounding enhancing meditations, but most of all in the music. 

So the effect is tragic, powerfully so. But there is also hope, most wonderfully expressed in arias such as ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’. 

What hope there might be, after such passively accepted cruelty, whether necessary or not, is mysterious to me. But I think it is the central mystery of the Christian faith, and in addressing it directly, and so wonderfully, this Passion is the most effective expression of that faith, so far as I have experienced. 

With a work of such importance, I should not overly complain about how badly this well-intentioned, interesting performance served it. The piece seems to me indestructible, and in any particular hearing criticism takes second place to grateful experience.

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