The life-enhancing Passion story

The only thing that matters is the life-enhancing unfolding of the Passion story told by the greatest master of them all, Bach, and our chance, performers and audience alike, to share in this wonder and be changed by it. I measure a year's life on this day. Involvement in this piece forces me to ask questions of myself; what was my feeling last year compared with today? What have I learned about myself during these twelve months? How have I changed, if at all? Have I developed as a musician?

The only honest answer I can give myself is to admit that there has been change. Whether for 'good' or 'bad' no longer concerns me. I am grateful for the fact that I am not standing in the same place. Certain things have altered; some things are quite obvious to me, such as the increasing feeling of peace and stability; I am beginning to look at myself with much more compassion after having driven myself relentlessly for a quarter of a century; perhaps this too was necessary and not to be regretted.

Is it middle age which teaches us to put a gentle, kindly veil over what we are, and in becoming kinder to ourselves, therefore kinder to other people? Is this what the impossible command to Love our neighbour as ourselves may mean? I just hope there may never come a day when I sit through this Passion music untouched by the experience, or unchanged by the passage of time.

As music at its greatest is for me an experience of the fourth dimension, that is, all human experience plus the extra one of time, past, present and future, so is the Passion the truest single reflection of music as a whole, because it gathers up every factor, composer, music, performer, audience, and while leaving us complete individuals binds us together as one. If this is not an expression of Holiness, I don't know what is.

Janet Baker writes of her performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at Easter 1982 with the London Bach Choir and Sir David Willcocks. The extract is from the diary of her last year on the opera stage, Full Circle, published by Penguin (ISBN 0140068267 - OP)

Both photos of St Thomas' Leipzig, where the St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday 1727, are copyright On An Overgrown Path, see link below. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to I am a camera - Leipzig and Gentlemen, old Bach is here ...


Pliable said…
It has been a wonderful Passiontide for music.

Two Passions, Bach's St John and Arvo Pärt's Passio, then yesterday a truly inspirational performance of Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories, interspersed with plainsong, by the Hilliard Ensemble in the beautiful Blythburgh Church in Suffolk.

Truly life-enhancing.
Pliable said…
I am inbebted to Garth Trinkl for the Washington Post review below of Helmut Rilling's Easter St Matthew Passion.

As regular readers will know I am a great fan of so-called 'authentic performances'. But I am equally as enthusiastic about contemporary performances such as this (and the Bach Choir version which Janet Baker writes about so persuasively), and would confess that my favourite recording of the St John Passion is Britten's interpretation sung in English.

A Stirring 'Passion' From Helmuth Rilling And the NSO

By Tim Page
Saturday, April 15, 2006; Page C01

Few works of music are shot through with the high solemnity of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," and it takes on an even graver urgency when it is performed on Good Friday, as it was yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center.

This was the esteemed German conductor Helmuth Rilling's debut with the National Symphony Orchestra (he led the "St. Matthew Passion" at Constitution Hall nine years ago with the Choral Arts Society) and he did not disappoint. Rilling made splendid use of his youthful forces -- the University of Maryland Concert Choir and the even younger Children's Chorus of Washington -- and assembled a group of soloists noteworthy for both their individual accomplishments and the way they fit into a greater whole.

Rilling is a scholar as well as a conductor, and much contemporary scholarship tells us that Bach was likely to have heard steadier and more dancelike tempos than we are accustomed to from the classic recorded renditions by, say, Otto Klemperer and Willem Mengelberg. I will confess that the opening chorus -- some of the most anguished and emotionally complicated music ever written -- sounded disconcertingly light in Rilling's performance.

But in no wise did he try to transform the NSO into one of those wispy baroque bands that are so acclaimed in England and Boston. This was high tragedy from start to finish. The orchestra was neither large nor small; string soloists were allowed to pulsate with vibrato; the chorus was permitted full emotional latitude in the great cry of "Barabbas!" Indeed, nothing about Rilling's interpretation was pedantic -- for example, it was an unusual and effective idea to fade voices in and out of the chorale melodies, augmenting the dynamic range by adding singers to the rank rather than by asking the ones already singing to grow louder.

Tenor Lothar Odinius was as good an Evangelist as I've heard, narrating the story with a mixture of fierce drama and honeyed lyricism. Baritone Christian Gerhaher made a warm and gently calming Christ, whose words are bathed in an unearthly aura of strings that sets them apart just as distinctly as those Bibles that print them in red ink. There was soulful, beautiful singing from soprano Kate Royal and contralto Ingeborg Danz (this last with an unusually light and agile voice for her range).

Bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang some of the less appealing characters in the drama -- notably Judas and Pilate -- in a manner that conveyed disapproval but never descended into stock villainy. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen combined clarion tones with a sure command of coloratura. Patrick Walders did well with the small part of the First Priest.

Unfortunately, during some of the most extraordinary moments of the score -- from the beginning of the trial right up to and including Christ's crucifixion -- one heard a strange wailing from the balcony. As it happened, it was a seeing-eye dog, which eventually quieted down or was removed -- a noble beast, to be sure, but its steady whimpering made for bizarre counterpoint with music of such exalted lamentation.

The concert, most likely without canine descant, will be repeated tonight at 8.


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