Passion, Passion

Dan Albertson

[June 2011.]

[No Bruckner now. What is wrong with me? More anon. Thank you, Marcia Broucek, for being accommodating in a hectic time. Thank you, Guillermo Gregorio, who answers to “maestro,” “doc,” “fess” and countless other sobriquets with equal ease, for the Hörsitzungen. Thank you, Yue Wang, for perambulations nigh into infinity. D.A.]

Johann Sebastian BACH: Passio secundum Matthæum (1727, rev. 1736, 1742, 1743-46). Stanford Olsen (t: Evangelist), Stephen Morscheck (b-bar: Jesus), Nicole Cabell (s), Jennifer Lane (mz), Nicholas Phan (t), Douglas Williams (b), Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago (Emily Ellsworth, cond.), Chicago Bach Choir (Donald Nally, cond.), Chicago Bach Orchestra, John Nelson (cond.). Concert at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Chicago, on April 20, 2011.

I had never experienced Matthew live. Here was the beginning of a three-year cycle in which the “other” passion and the H-moll-Messe will receive Chicago performances under the auspices of Soli Deo Gloria (no, not that one). I should have brought a cushion, for a long night in a church was ahead of me; the program announced the performance at “three-and-a-quarter hours in length,” which terrified me and was fortunately not true. The CTA and an overzealous heater were constant companions.

Each choir had 16 voices, plus 20 young voices, quite large these days, but even half that number would seem too many to me, at this point. I find the Rifkin thesis most satisfactory on a musical level. The lack of a harpsichord tonight was felt acutely at times, not that the presence of two organs is a complaint. Screens behind each choir projected the English translation of the text. Ah, how people love their écrans. [Nicht jeder versteht deutsch. W.M.]

The work has started inauspiciously, Kommt, ihr Töchter dragging, with very weak interrogations from the second choir. Nelson took a long pause before starting no. 2. I soon understood that Olsen would be the sort of Evangelist without rolled “r”s and I learned to live with it. Maybe Mark Padmore is the only Anglophone to manage them so easily. Morscheck, as Jesus, went similarly for an “English” approach to sung German and seemed not to know how to say “zwölf.” Each was engaging dramatically, however. Cabell, encountered once before, was rather thin in voice in Blute nur, again suffering from a lack of clarity in diction, for sure not abetted by the spacious confines of the parish. The oboe aria Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen was a highlight of part one, the oboist standing to accompany Phan, a sure voice, if one without much distinction. The glorious storm of choral singing that is Sind Blitze, sind Donner was not quite forceful, entirely too safe to be true to the textual implications. Part one ended with an unaffected rendering of O Mensch; on the whole, the chorales were the strongest element of part one, which totaled 71:12. Too oft the sensation was that the stately, reverential nature of the chorales had calcified the arie and recitativi.

Intermission lasted almost 30 mins. Any hope of getting home before midnight vanished. Lane took a detached approach, perhaps necessary, to Erbarme dich, though I found the bland ornamentation from the solo violinist, also standing, less palatable. The course of the work flowed along, without much to merit or demerit it, until the end of no. 54, when the chorus roared, “Laß ihn kreuzigen!” I was invited to pay closer attention, at long last. Soon thereafter, the pure tone employed by the flautist in Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben impressed, much more than Cabell. Nelson sat for Komm, süßes Kreuz, not needing to conduct and perhaps enjoying the rich voice of Williams and the gamba accompaniment from John Mark Rozendaal as much as I did. The moment when Jesus dies, in no. 71, “Aber Jesus schrie abermal laut und verschied,” was delivered with incredible nonchalance and haste by Olsen, quite a surprise and not unwelcomed. Another oboe aria, Mache dich, mein Herze, rein, induced cringes, with the soggy tempo and stolid singing. The passion soon ended, the final Wir setzen uns surprisingly not weighed down by earlier problems. Part two totaled 98:22.

Overall, undistinguished Bach prevailed, some moments to the contrary excluded: The notes were there and sometimes the passion was there, too. Good Bach is easy, but great Bach is another matter.

Cover of Mirare MIR 136

Johann Sebastian BACH: Passio secundum Johannem (1724 version, with aria &chorale from 1725). Hans-Jörg Mammel (Evangelist & t), Matthias Vieweg (b: Jesus), Stephan MacLeod (b & Peter & Pilate), Maria Keohane & Helena Ek (s), Carlos Mena & Jan Börner (a), Jan Kobow (t), Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot (vdg & dir.). Mirare MIR 136 (http://www.mirare.fr/). Distributed in the US by Harmonia Mundi (http://www.harmoniamundi.com/).

Recorded in Liège, 9/2010; 35:51 + 77:36. The version here is mostly 1724, much more so than Haller, though the inclusion of the duet Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe was an adroit choice. Christe, du Lamm Gottes is the only other concession to 1725 and is less convincing. How to end the work remains an open question.

As seasoned readers may recall here and here, the ongoing Bach series from the Ricercar Consort has left a profound impression: JSB viewed with invigoration. This passion is a worthy addition and seems to be the best account of the work from the past decade, though “the” recording of this work has not yet been made, to my regret.

The cast of singers is superb, as soli and as choristers; Es ist vollbracht with Mena and Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen with MacLeod being arie that are especially fine. Mammel immediately asserts himself as a forward, enthusiastic Evangelist, his voice sitting higher than many tenors, yet not as high as Nico van der Meel. His mood varies greatly, from exuberance to directness and introspection; he brings a great amalgam of grace and sympathy to the florid passagework surrounding the words “weinete bitterlich,” often viewed too sentimentally, in no. 12. Vieweg, not encountered before, is sonorous and sure of diction throughout, in a rôle in which excellence is difficult. The flute aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls is much slower than expected, ably sung and performed, yet verging on the somber, far from the intended mood. Keohane excels in Zerfließe, mein Herze, too, though Pierlot misses an opportunity for the cello and continuo to form an equal partnership to the soprano, staying firmly as accompaniment, otherwise not the case in this performance.

Quibbles aside, this recording is lucid, instrumentally and vocally; the interpretation emotionally and technically sound; the contrasting moods behind the arie, chorales and recitativi weighed judiciously; and, not least, the text by Carsten Hinrichs defends Picander with a welcomed ardor, whether one agrees or disagrees with the advocacy.