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:
PHOTO COURTESY OF BACH CONCERT SOCIETY