When styles collide

Architectural style - the Zen-like discipline of Japanese design collides with the flamboyance of Art Nouveau in this magnificent organ screen by the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It was photographed by me in The Parish Church (formerly Holy Trinity) in Bridge of Allan, Scotland where we lived in the 1980s. The organ screen was designed by Mackintosh in 1904 to complement the 1884 instrument built by Lewis and Company, and the architect also created a matching pulpit, communion table and chair, and chancel rail. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one of the key figures in early twentieth century architecture. His unique contribution was to seamlessly blend the decadence of European Jugendstil with the minimalism of the Oriental visual arts to produce a visual style that was enthusiastically embraced by his native Puritan Scotland.

Period style - forty miles south of Bridge of Allan is Edinburgh. In September 2007 the Dunedin Consort and Players and a team of outstanding soloists under the direction of John Butt gathered in the 17th century Greyfriars Kirk in the city centre to record J. S. Bach's Matthew Passion for the Scottish Linn Records label. The Matthew Passion takes its stylistic cues from Wittenberg rather than Rome. It is one of the final flourishes of the baroque style; just five years after it was composed Joseph Haydn, father of the classical style, was born. For his recording John Butt broke from conventional performance style by using just eight voices with one to a part, to perform Bach's rarely-heard last performing version of the Passion dating from 1742. For reasons which escape me this March 2008 release slipped under everyone's radar, including mine. I was alerted to it by Francisco de Paula Sánchez at Alia Vox when I was arranging my just-in-time interview with Jordi Savall back in the Spring. As the folks at Alia Vox know a thing or two about early vocal music I bought a copy when, quite appropriately I was in Edinburgh last summer.

Performance style - there is no right and no wrong way to perform Bach. Like a great painting his works can be viewed from many different angles and perspectives, and from every viewpoint it is the glorious music that shines through. In this outstanding new Matthew Passion the small forces give an intimacy to the performance that is quite special. Instead of being part of the audience the listener becomes part of the performance. Quite remarkable music making coupled with, as you would expect from Linn, quite superlative sound engineered by Philip Hobbs. And in a parallel collision of technical styles the Dunedin Consort's Matthew Passion is recorded in Red Book CD, SACD, and HDCD (which my Arcam 9 CD player decodes) formats on one 3 CD disc set. And if that is not enough, it is also available as downloads in no less than five different resolutions ranging from MP3 through CD equivalent to studio master quality (FLAC 24bit 88.2kHz 2,758.5MB). It could only come from an independent record label.

Beyond style - serial music as architecture here. While an architect turned composer leads us to Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid here. But what really fascinates me are the stylistic similarities between Charles Rennie Mackintosh's designs sampled above and the Sufi ornamentation seen in the 14th century Quaranic school in Marrakech.

Header photo taken August 2008 and (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. The Charles Rennie Mackintosh motifs were sampled by me from the history booklet produced by The Parish Church, Bridge of Allan. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
The Dunedin Consort's Messiah is also well worth seeking out. It predates the Matthew Passion and uses similar performance conventions. Again the edition is unusual, a reconstructed/speculative version of the original Dublin 1742 version. The Messiah, but not the Matthew Passion is also available on vinyl -

Garth Trinkl said…
Regarding Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his fascinating 'Ladies' Luncheon Room' was a "centerpiece" of a major exhibition on international
Art Nouveau at the National Gallery of Art of Washington, in 2000, I believe.

I quickly located this nice link to the exhibition and the 'Luncheon Room' (though I don't know what "music" is on the audio link):

Pliable said…
Joshua Rifkin is one of the best-known advocates of small scale Bach.

His other claims to fame include producing albums for Judy Collins and being one of the pianists in the famous 1963 performance of Eric Satie's Vexations organised by John Cage -

the Matthews Passion I have was a great deal from the great Arkiv music in the states. The openeing movement took some getting used to, though the three discs themselves are proof of a higher power...
Anonymous said…
Matthew Passion ... is one of the final flourishes of the baroque style; just three years after it was composed Joseph Haydn, father of the classical style, was born.

Seems to be 5 years, actually (1727 vs. 1732), but what's 2 years between friends?

On an equally picky point, I'm not sure that Haydn being born makes any stylistic comment. It could be kept in the family by pointing out that the Matthew Passion was composed only 4 years before CPE Bach's first compositions.

the small forces give an intimacy to the performance that is quite special. Instead of being part of the audience the listener becomes part of the performance.

I'll admit that I don't really understand what this means (or even what it could mean).

If I hear a performance of a Bach trio sonata recorded on a clavichord rather than on an organ in a large church, am I somehow part of the performance? Or do the Quasthoff/Abbado orchestrated Schubert lieder impose a higher degree of "audienceness" due to their decreased intimacy? I don't know, but they're interesting questions.

I haven't heard the Dunedin Matthew Passion. I do have the pioneering Rifkin B Minor Mass on LP, and have always enjoyed it. I could certainly imagine hearing it in a more intimate space than (say) the Jochum B Minor (to mention another LP set), but I don't think I ever felt that I was shifting from audience to participant with the Rifkin.
Pliable said…
Scott, yes my maths were wrong. But when is a work 'composed'? It is thought that Bach started writing the Matthew Passion in 1725. So was it written not 3, not 5, but 8 years before Haydn was born?

Or is a work 'composed' when it is finished? The Matthew Passion was revised in 1736, which is after Haydn was born!

To try to explain 'the listener becomes part of the performance'. The Dunedin performance gives me a level of engagement and intimacy with the performers that is similar to listening to listening to chamber music in a small hall. I once heard the Amadeus Quartet in the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin. They were a superlative ensemble; but there was not very much engagement from my seat towards the back of the auditorium.

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