In the large series of famous works, in which from the Middle Ages up to the present the arts have depicted the suffering of Jesus Christ, the passions of Bach take a special place as impressive monuments of a religious attitude.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed four, possibly five passions, not all of which are preserved. They belong to the type of the so-called oratorio passion, which differs from its precursors, the choral passion and the motet passion in the use of a bigger variety of musical forms and means, still more substantially in the fact that it connects the biblical text freely with poetic contemplation, which is presented by unhistorical, allegorical characters. In the course of the Eighteenth century especially the representatives of the Hamburg school turn this form of the passion into a sensitive and sentimental stage play. Bach opposed this secularization, as firstly, he stuck strictly to the unaltered Bible text and, secondly, let the lyrical insertions be ruled by the Protestant chorals, a distinctive liturgical-ecclesiastical element.
In the Matthew Passion, Bach had successfully added the non-biblical parts, asked for by the contemporary tastes, to the story of the sufferings of Christ: the largest choral choirs of the composition are based on texts of madrigals. He even profited from the inventions of the daughter of Zion and a group of faithful souls and transformed the dialogs to lively scenes of the most absorbing dramatic effect. In the initial choir “Kommt, ihr Tochter helft mir klagen” (Come daughters, help me mourn) from the duet “So schlafen unsre Sunden ein ” (Thus our sins fall asleep) between tenor and choir and in the final part of the capture “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” (Thus my Jesus is caught now) you recognize the beautiful way, in which the text is enhanced; at the same time these parts most clearly show the superior signification of the double choir and double orchestra, which give great effect to the Matthew Passion. Where Bach imbedded the segments of the madrigal into lighter musical form, may it be as arias or ariosos the passion is especially rich with, as well as in the expression of sentiments in the simple form of the congregational song, everywhere the genius of an extremely gifted composer can be witnessed.
The biblical part of the Matthew Passion offers the composer many welcomed possibilities with the richness of the very lively and exciting portrayal of the different episodes of the Gospel. Bach enhanced this substantially in the choirs or the speeches of the disciples, the high priests and the people with the way he conducts the double-chorus. The outstanding motivic inventions of single choirs render the composition a psychological acuteness, especially perceivable in the choir “Lass ihn kreuzigen” (Let him be crucified); the realism of the short outcry of rage ” Barrabam” the crowd exclaims pushes the boundaries of musical style. Among the solos of the biblical part the character of Christ is the most important, stressed by the purity of tone and the “supernatural light” that the instrumental accompaniment weaves around the vocal part – thanks to an old Venetian technique used by Bach.
The Evangelist states his report with a richness of sensation and compassion, uncommon in simple recitative. Parts of the naive-picturesque characteristics – the crows of the cock, the cries of Peter – can be traced back to earlier traditions of the passion plays and intensify the folkloristic-ecclesiastical character of those parts of the composition.
Although the Matthew Passion can be considered in form and mind as an ideal form for the representation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, at the same time extremely artistic and, nevertheless, in utmost simplicity and intelligibility, it had not been esteemed in its epoch. Performed for the first time in Leipzig, on April 15th 1729, in the afternoon service of Good Friday and modified in about 1740, it became known in musician’s circles, but found no further audience. One hundred years later, the young Felix Mendelssohn-Barthody (1809-1847) performed the passion in a concert at the “Berliner Singakademie” (Berlin song academy).
Revived by Mendelssohn’s engagement not only Bach’s work, but old music in general gained increasing influence on the contemporary musical developments. The historical Berlin performance from March 12th 1829 was followed at first only by a few performances in Wroclaw, Königsberg and Dresden; a finally lasting recognition began only one generation later.
For all of Leonard Bernstein's remarkably eclectic affinities, his legacy as a conductor is not often associated with Baroque music. Yet this remastered recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion--like that of his Bach concertos with Glenn Gould and others--is a moving document of musical and emotional empathy. True, Bernstein's stylistic approach (the frequently languorous tempos, the italicized effect accorded certain significant moments in Bach's richly textured drama) and employment of large-scale choral and orchestral forces have long since fallen out of favor in the wake of the "authentic- performance" movement. And purists will certainly object to the use of English texts as well as numerous cuts from the original score (mostly in Part Two). That said, Bernstein's reading has a thrilling cogency and dramatic consistency fully abetted by the New York Philharmonic's heartfelt playing as well as by the excellently prepared chorus. Listen to the subtly varied inflections of each recurrence of the chorale "O Lamb of God Most Holy" to signal the inexorable course of the tragedy, or to the devastating impact of the sorrowful final double chorus. The vocal soloists are unfortunately uneven, ranging from David Lloyd's erratic, hooty tenor as the Evangelist to the multidimensional Jesus characterized by bass William Wildermann. The set includes a bonus track of Bernstein discussing how Bach unfolds his vividly dramatic structure in the Passion. -- Thomas May
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