CBF’s St Matthew Passion

WALTZING IN GRIEF

By Scott MacClelland

THE MOST POPULAR individual pieces in JS Bach’s Matthew Passion oratorio are the big choral settings and the solo arias, all in triple meter—12/8, 6/8, 3/8, 3/4. The opening chorus, with its ‘Q and A’ antiphonal choral dialogue, the finale to Part I, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (“O Man bewail thy grievous sin”) and the final chorus of the entire piece, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down in grief”), along with the especially beloved solo arias, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (“Have mercy, Lord”) and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Make my heart clean of sin”) are all in triple meter.

Why is that? How do you waltz when you ‘sit down in grief’? Most of Bach’s Matthew Passion setting is in a meter of four, certainly including the chorales that interrupt the narrative in favor of the ‘faithful’ as they react, often with dismay, to the events of the unfolding narrative tragedy. Yet for some reason Bach chose to direct the most deeply emotional reactions to that narrative in dance rhythms, gentle lullabies and dreamy ballets, the better to soothe the grief of inevitable doom. Here, the passion of Christ is not relieved by his resurrection.

Paul Goodwin’s orchestra and Andrew Megill’s chorus were divided in two. They came together for those moments that demanded the greatest weight, including the chorales and ‘crowd’ scenes. Each of the two orchestras, arranged in a semicircle, gave the first rows to the wind instruments, with the strings behind, each with its own concertmaster. Both had their own continuo sections and organs. Tuning was in Baroque practice, A = 415 hertz, giving the overall sound a deeper, mellower character. Among the instruments were such exotica as viola da gamba and oboes da caccia.

Rufus Müller, the Evangelist dedicated to the Matthew liturgy exclusively, sang the entire narrative from memory. Timbral variations across his range produced at least three different vocal qualities. The four soloists came into their expressive own in the longer second part of Bach’s setting. Mezzo soprano Meg Bragle struggled a bit in the first part, perhaps because of the lower tuning. Tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone John Brancy especially rose to the occasion in their second-part arias. The competent soprano was Mhairi Lawson. The character roles—Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilate, etc.—were drawn from Megill’s Chorale.

The opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr tochter” (“Come ye daughters”) omitted the familiar chorale melody, “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (“O lamb of God, most holy”), usually sung by a children’s chorus, that overtops the two antiphonal choirs. Conspicuous by its absence, I raised the question with Megill who explained that a 1736 manuscript edition implies that the ripieno soprano line was removed, without the words, into the organ. In this case, he told me, into the two organs. This crucial melody was MIA—missing in action.         

David Gordon’s projected English supertitles tended to lag behind the sung German, indeed by several pages when the performance resumed after intermission.

Notwithstanding those who put faith above humanity, Bach himself included, his Matthew Passion stands as the most persuasively charged work of humanity in Western music. When paced well, its allure is both intensely emotional and profoundly cathartic. Like the Christ himself, I doubt that Bach fully understood the depth he had plumbed.

This performance timed in at two hours and 42 minutes. (A justifiably famous and well-celebrated 1960-61 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer, with much larger orchestra and chorus, added more than an hour.) This afternoon, I give credit to Paul Goodwin for keeping the piece moving forward with energy and momentum and an overall Baroque character.

Artistically, the Bach Festival is more like Bach’s own: provincial. Wikepedia’s updated entry on Goodwin makes the festival sound like an afterthought to his international career: “He has been appointed the Music Director and Conductor of the Carmel Bach Festival from the 2011 season.”