Bach’s St. Matthew Passion functions as religious music, presenting the trial and crucifixion of Christ, setting the words of Matthew’s Gospel and adding to this choruses and solos where devout souls meditate upon one moment in the sequence of events or upon the larger meaning of it all. A Christian can confront this work and feel a deepening and strengthening of faith and understanding already held. But Bach’s Passion also makes of the story of Christ’s sacrifice a great work of art, compelling as art is compelling, in ways not quite the same as the ways religion is compelling. The Bach is a vast and experimental work, trying to find and seeming to find new musical invention at every stage — large complex choruses, simple choral hymns dating from earlier times but now re-harmonized and repeated with variations, vocal solos of great variety in form and tempo and mood, solos and duets with choral intervention, and so on and on. I once heard philosopher Stanley Cavell call the piece “the Kant and Hegel of music.” This comment captures the sense in which Bach is reconsidering all the past and using it, and at the same time boldly opening doors, opening up new possibilities for music. Bach stood on the cusp of religion and music. Religious music before him seems more religious than musical, while religious music after him seems more a part of the evolution of music than it seems religious (however sincerely religious it may be) — Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Fauré, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Messiaen… Bach is both at once, profoundly religious and a profoundly self-conscious innovator in developing music as an autonomous art.
The St. Matthew Passion transmogrifies the story of Christ into a drama of sacrifice universally accessible and amazing, like the stories of corn gods killed and buried to bring on the spring, or those of Sophocles’s dramas, or King Lear and Hamlet, Phèdre, Don Giovanni, Tristan und Isolde… Some fallible characters here, but Christ is fallible in the Gospel, and Bach makes much of this, with passionate utterance from the singing Christ asking to be relieved from his destiny to suffer and die. God becoming man entails taking on the fallibility of the flesh. Christ says to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Boston is fortunate year in and year out with performances of this great piece. Not many years ago the late Craig Smith led a joyful, dramatic performance with Emmanuel Music — and it is amazing how the piece can come off joyful despite the tragedy. David Hoose led a searing performance a bit later with the Cantata Singers. Last year the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented the piece under Bernard Haitink, with an overwhelming, moving rendition of the Evangelist by tenor Ian Bostridge — the singer with the biggest part, who provides all the pure narrative from the Gospel, tying everything together.
The recent performance led by John Harbison was perhaps the best of them, getting better and better as it went on, the light failing in the church on Sunday afternoon as near the end a bass soloist sings about the evening and how so many significant events occurred in that special light — Adam’s fall, the dove returning to Noah on the ark with a sign of hope, and Christ’s saving martyrdom. In the final hour, the musicians — singers and orchestra — and Harbison in front of them, seemed to enter a zone, as the saying goes, technically in command and at ease but seeming to forget technique, giving themselves up to music and meaning, the string sound and the choir of oboes becoming more and more beautiful, the singing of soloists and chorus more and more flowing and pointed and moving.
The big opening chorus, in fact two choruses singing against each other, stating and answering (“Kommt, ihr Töchter” – “Come, you daughters, help me lament…”), is an entreaty to the public to enter into the story to be told and into its significance. One of the high points of the Craig Smith performance some years ago was the entry of a children’s chorus up in the balcony during this number, singing a simple hymn/chorale tune, “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (“O guiltless lamb of God, slaughtered on the Cross…”) — lambs singing about a lamb. I remember that tears sprang to my eyes. The only mistake of the current performance — and it was a big one — was to place a trumpet up in the balcony to accompany the children. It pretty much obliterated their sound in this chorale, as it did the one time they appear later, in the final chorus of Part I, after Christ’s arrest, in the plain, subtly agitated number “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (“O man, bewail your great sin”).
The Evangelist for this performance, tenor Charles Blandy, was fine and effective, phrasing beautifully. He was not as richly human as some who take the role, though this is one way of doing it, letting the more impersonal narrator stand a bit apart from the actors and meditating soloists. Towards the end I was finding Blandy’s voice a little constricted, lacking in color. Baritone Donald Wilkinson sang the Jesus with a big, rich voice, and had a wonderful stage presence and way of looking the audience right in the eye. This was very much Jesus the man — strong, mystical, but also flesh and blood, frightened, suffering pain. All the soloists were good, singing as if they meant it. In Part 1 I was especially struck by Roberta Anderson’s strong soprano in the aria “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” (“I will give my heart to thee”), just after Jesus institutes Communion and takes leave of his disciples. A little later, when Jesus prays alone in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, the drama and scary atmosphere of the piece came fully to life with tenor Frank Kelley’s dialogue with the chorus, one of Bach’s most inventive and dazzling numbers, “O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz!” (“O pain! Here trembles the agonized heart!”). In Part 2 alto Pamela Dellal gave the most compelling rendition I have ever heard of the great aria “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy”), after Peter denies knowing Christ and is then overtaken with regret and self-hatred. The aria — and I cannot separate it at this point from Dellal — holds the human anxiety of the situation and yet manages to be profoundly consoling. Rosemary Harbison played the solo violin part here, sounding like a human voice. Soprano Kendra Colton and the flutes made the very slow aria “Aus Liebe” (“For love”) spellbinding, a deep meditation, interrupting the high drama of Christ before Pilate, where harsh choruses demand crucifixion (the Boston symphony performance really went dead with “Aus Liebe” and never fully recovered). And so the momentum and intensity and musical commitment built — bass Mark McSweeney singing about the evening light and somehow restoring strength and humanity to the world in “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Purify thyself, my heart”), when Joseph of Arimathaea comes forward and offers to bury Jesus’ body — and on to the final reconciliation chorus, sung with great feeling, where the tension relaxes and the darkness brightens somewhat, and yet the tragic sound of C-Minor emerges in the last chord to stay in our ears.
Several days after this performance, Emmanuel Church’s Good Friday service (April 10th) presented the St. Matthew Passion of Bach’s predecessor Heinrich Schütz (written in his eighties), a work for singers only — no musical instruments — of about 45 minutes’ duration. The invaluable Frank Kelley sang the Evangelist with great human feeling, expanding and contracting the tempo, making much of silent pauses. Bass Paul Guttry was a suitably mystical and mysterious Jesus. Four other singers took the other various roles, and Guttry and Kelley joined them for the choruses. Very interesting and commendable to have given us this work within a week of the Bach. Schütz presents just the Gospel text, no meditative arias, ensembles, or chorales. There is a brief opening chorus announcing the work and inviting us to listen, and a final chorus offering honor to Christ, entreating God’s help, and at last turning from the German to the ancient Greek “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison….” In these choruses Schütz evokes the sound and harmony world of medieval chant. Like the sculptures over the doors at Chartres Cathedral, this work is very great art by any standard, and yet belongs wholly to religion. Something to think about there.