Bach/Mendelssohn St Matthew Passion

Bach, edited Mendelssohn
St Matthew Passion [A recreation of the 1829 Berlin performance]

Evangelist – James Gilchrist (tenor)
Christus – James Rutherford (bass)

Joanne Lunn (soprano)
Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo-soprano)

Choir of the Enlightenment
London Symphony Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 February, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In the film “Carry on Teacher”, the English teacher (KennethWilliams) announces that he will “cut the speech” referring to a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” which he deems unsuitable for adolescents. A pupil replies: “there won’t be much left of the play at this rate”. Whilst not quite on this level of decimation, the cuts which Mendelssohn imposed on his performing version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion nevertheless remove a significant amount of material, which is disconcerting for anyone who knows – and loves – Bach’s masterpiece.

Yet Mendelssohn’s pioneering 1829 Berlin performance is of tremendous historical importance since it was the first time in nearly a century that the work had been heard, and largely contributed to the revival of interest in Bach’s music.

Mendelssohn was – astonishingly – a mere twenty-year-old when he directed this performance from the keyboard (fortepiano) and from memory, and was perceptive enough to realise that giving the Passion in full would probably be too much of a good thing for contemporary audiences. In any event, and whatever eyebrows might be raised at his editorial decisions, Mendelssohn’s abridged version certainly brought Bach’s genius before a musical world which had largely forgotten him. For this alone we can be grateful.

Mendelssohn’s excisions include the vast majority of the arias and a number of the chorales, along with some editorial touches – such as the alteration of harmony in one or two places. Additionally, the music for the then obsolete oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia were re-written for clarinets, the organ omitted and some of the music for the Evangelist transposed down.

It may seem odd that one of the chief proponents of so-called ‘authentic performance practice’ – Sir Roger Norrington – alongside his long-time collaborators, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, should be found performing a decidedly non-authentic version of Bach’s Passion, but this concert was one of a series entitled “A Generous Sprit: Mendelssohn the Musician” looking at the various aspects of the composer’s life and work. Not the least of his achievements was his work as a conductor and promoter of music by composers other than himself.

Norrington, in a spoken introduction, spoke of the difficulties in performing Mendelssohn’s edition – should the music be approached as if it were by Bach or his 19th-century editor?

In any event, this performance quite affectionately re-created what must have been an extraordinary occasion.

The ‘setting’ was deemed to be ‘authentic’ – i.e. the chorus sat(throughout) facing each other at the front of the stage, with theorchestra similarly divided at the rear. In the middle Steven Devine presided at the fortepiano, next to him three of the soloists, with James Rutherford amongst the strings at the back.In the midst of the performers was the conductor, gesturing andencouraging amiably from a swivel-chair.

After a too-swift (for these ears) opening chorus, which was rather too ‘dainty’ in character to suggest monumental matters about to be meditated upon, and some below-the-note singing, the performance settled down and created an atmosphere of its own which, ultimately, was affecting in its own way.

The linchpin of the proceedings was James Gilchrist as the tireless Evangelist, who narrated with considerable character, and ever more caught up in the drama. His care for words and phrasing was impeccable, and he had an excellent knack of moving the story suddenly onwards as one ‘scene’ ended andanother began. Whilst the role of the Evangelist is always an exacting one, Mendelssohn made it even more so – in Bach’s original the Evangelist’s passages are interspersed with arias and chorales which Mendelssohn decided to omit. Thus the tenor’s task is all the more demanding, but Gilchrist rose effortlessly to the challenge. Throughout, he was accompanied with tasteand response by Steven Devine, whose dry-sounding instrument took some getting used to, but who resisted the temptation to embellish too much. The fortepiano was an isolated ‘continuo’ element – there was no sustaining or supporting bass string line.

James Rutherford was a solemn – though not over-sanctimonious – Christus. Norrington kept his string-accompanied recitatives moving along, and whilst sometimes one might have wished for more amplitude, this was preferable to too maudlin or sentimental an approach.

I’d have liked to have heard more of Wilke te Brummelstroete’sexpressive mezzo-soprano, but she made the most of the limitedopportunities Mendelssohn left, and did so with attractive and pliant tone.

The same cannot be said, I fear, for Joanne Lunn who was consistently and distressingly flat. Granted her first entrance was long-delayed, but her performance was constantly painful, especially in the aria “Ebarme dich’, which Mendelssohn allocated to the soprano (as opposed to Bach’s designation for alto) and wrote embellishments. Here, and in the soprano’s final phrases, Lunn, whether due to nerves or other reasons, was simply out of tune to an extent inexplicable for a professional artist.

The combined choruses sang alternately with devotion and ardour. Indeed, Mendelssohn’s version makes the chorus’s role all the more crucial, since their interjections keep the narrative moving along at a pace much more rapid than Bach envisaged. Their antiphonal placing made their exchanges bitingly dramatic.

The OAE was supple and largely devoid of the sour tone and intonation difficulties which can render ‘period’ performances a trial of patience. The clarinets made a most telling contribution; in the context their parts were not at all anachronistic as they might have been. Indeed, the blend of the wind instruments was commendably fine.

Over all, Roger Norrington presided in avuncular fashion from hischair, and encouraged a performance of warmth and feeling set against the more dramatic passages which Mendelssohn’s edition emphasises. From time to time, there was a positively operatic quality to the choruses, buttressed by articulate playing.

Whilst one would not suggest that we go ‘back to Mendelssohn’ toexperience Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as a one-off experiment, this was a valuable and interesting experience and, taken on its own terms, a performance of conviction and – if the pun will be excused – passion.

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