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March 28, 2012

On Bach, 'St. Matthew Passion,' Baltimore and Mengelberg

Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" will fill this weekend in Baltimore. The Bach Concert Series offers this monument of Western music in a two-part presentation, Saturday and Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor.

The series is best known for its free monthly concerts, typically devoted to a cantata and some instrumental works. Tickets are understandably being charged for the large-scale Passion project.

The performances will be conducted by T. Herbert Dimmock, whose championing of the composer is boundless and whose dedication to the Bach Concert Series has made it an admirable component of the city's cultural life.  

The epic "St. Matthew Passion," intended for the closing days of Lent, is a reflection on the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. It can speak strongly to those of any or no religious affiliation or leaning. This is music of incredible beauty and ingenuity, not to mention intense drama.

I was freshly reminded of how stylistic approaches to Bach have changed so markedly over the past several decades, thanks in large measure to ...

the historical authenticity movement, which has caused a general speeding up of tempos and a crisping of articulation.

Sir Colin Davis, the eminent British conductor, will have none of it. In an interview this week with the Guardian, he said of the period instrument:

"The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It's entirely theoretical. Most don't play the music because it's moving, they play it to grind out theories about bows, gut strings, old instruments and phrasing. I've heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content."

Yikes. Them's fightin' words. That got me thinking about the era way before all that historical awakening, when Bach could be savored for its emotional content at what would now be considered glacial tempos and thoroughly romantic phrasing. I must say that, while enjoying many of the historically informed performances today, I still feel an occasional craving for the good old days. Let me give you an example, using the final chorus from the "St. Mathew Passion."

Wednesday just happens to be the birthday of conductor Willem Mengelberg. I realize his legacy will forever be tainted by his behavior after the Nazi occupation of his native Holland, but his music-making remains important and inspiring (to me, at least). See what you think of how Mengelberg approaches the close of Bach's masterwork, compared to a more contemporary, PC version led by Philippe Herreweghe: 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:43 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes


I bought a CD of St Matthews Passion when I read that Paul Simon based his American Tune on a melody in it. Sure enough he did.

Thanks. I had forgotten that song. A most intriguing connection to Bach. TIM

I have great respect for Colin Davis as a musician, but that is really a very unfortunate comment. I have never met a baroque specialist who was not thoroughly moved by the music they perform and the "emotional content" is often much more clearly presented than in 'conventional' performances. Sir Colin's remark suggests the carping of the 1970s, when the early HIP practitioners were often dismissed as academic musician-wannabes. Thankfully, the rest of the musical world, both inside and outside the early music movement, has largely moved on in the past forty years.

For Mengelberg vs. Herreweghe, I don't find anything less emotional about a faster tempo. On the contrary, the Herreweghe speaks to me much more directly and easily and, yes, emotionally. For me, the Mengelberg is like a foreign language that I have to painstakingly translate as I go along. Doubtless my grandchildren will say the same about Herreweghe and his colleagues.

I agree wholeheartedly about the Davis remark. I just find it so fascinating that esteemed musicians can still feel that way after all these years. Still, I do sometimes feel sympathy with his view. A fast and bright approach doesn't always equate with expressive power, anymore than a slow and heavy one does. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to hear a period performance at a Furtwangler pace. Might be fascinating. I do think most of the authenticity folks have slowed down a bit since the early days, which suggests they are not as stuck in a rut as Davis seems to think. And I cannot discard the Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Klemperer recordings of this repertoire. I hear something in them that truly grabs me. The cool thing is the evolution of tastes and knowledge, part of music's ongoing gift. TIM

Wow, talk about extremes. Something between the two renditions, maybe?

Wow - I love Mengelberg's conducting and had no idea there was a St. Mathews passion out there. His German Requiem is one of the most moving performances of anything I've ever heard! This is wonderful to hear and I'd like to find the whole performance. Having said that, I already have the Herreweghe, Leonhardt, (also original instruments) and Bernstein's in an English translation to boot. I love Herreweghe and would not part with it. It's not an "either/or" proposition. Both are valid and we need both. The same is true of the Brandenburg Concertos - for that matter, if I wanted a Mengelberg type recording of the Brandenburgs, what would you suggest? I have no intention of giving up my various original instrument versions, but I too would like to hear the old romantic style sometimes. Colin Davis is off-base. There are flaws in any style and bad practitioners in any style. His is a very narrow view.

Could not agree more -- both approaches are valid. I think the problem with music tastes over the years is that a lot of people do end up thinking there is only one way. I know Mengleberg recorded some Bach suites; I don't think there are any Brandenburgs of his out there. But Klemperer might be just the thing. I haven't heard his recordings of those works, but I imagine they will be very old-style and, quite possibly, wonderful. Thanks for the comments. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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