A Passion for Bach: a composer’s greatness shines through at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

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J. S. Bach

Each spring, Easter offers us a time for family, a time for oversized rabbits, for pastel-colored eggs and for Bach oratorios. Since the 19th century, the St. John Passion (as well as the longer, more complete St. Matthew Passion) has become a holiday standard for classical music buffs with its musical retelling of the Easter story, replete with arias, ariosos, recitatives, choruses and some of the most memorable hymns in the Western canon.

In Bach’s hometown of Leipzig, a small city in Germany’s Saxony region, Easter is hardly Easter without a Bach Passion. Despite the city’s small size, Leipzig has been a world leader in cultural progressivism for centuries, the traces of which one can’t help but feel when here. Today, Leipzig embodies the old and the new, the traditional and the revolutionary. The Altstadt is an amalgam of Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture dotted with post-war buildings to add a distinctly Stalinist charm. Just outside the tourist-trodden center, the bombed-out shells of former warehouses and hotels haunt the city’s perimeter.

Despite these ghosts, Leipzig’s cultural accomplishments and traditions continue to shine through. For the literary, or just the plain thirsty, there’s Auerbachs Keller, the 15th-century pub featured as the local den of vice in Goethe’s Faust, now an over-priced house of molecular gastronomy. Down the street is the Museum in der Runden-Ecke, better known as the Stasi Museum, a memorial exhibition located in the former headquarters of the East German secret police, a testament to the city’s peaceful demonstrations of 1989 that prompted the collapse of the GDR.

Between these two sites lies the Thomaskirche, the birthplace of nearly all of Bach’s music, except the St. John Passion, which premiered at the St. Nicholas Church as the result of a last-minute location change. The St. John Passion (in German as the Johannes-Passion) was composed in 1724 for the Good Friday Vespers. The piece tells the Easter story as recounted in the Gospel of John in Luther’s translation. Compared to the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion is often described as more “unfinished.” Indeed, Bach regularly rewrote the piece throughout his own lifetime and it received further alterations from postwar conductors seeking to relieve the discomfort caused by certain passages, which some in modern times have considered anti-semitic.

Today, the St. John Passion, and many more works by Bach, are kept alive in Leipzig by the renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra, an ensemble nearly as old as the composer himself. It is considered to be one of the the oldest concert orchestras in the world. Established by a group of musicians who played between private homes and the local tavern, the ensemble found a home in the Gewandhaus in 1781. Led by world-class conductors including composer Felix Mendelssohn, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Václav Neumann and Kurt Masur, the orchestra has secured its position as one of the world’s leading Bach ensembles. The current conductor, Riccardo Chailly, took over the post in 2005 and also serves as Music Director of the Leipzig Opera.

At the Gewandhaus, Chailly is known for his fidelity to “authentic” Baroque performance practice, that is to say, a tendency to replace musical sentimentality with speed. In fact, this particular interpretation of the St. John Passion was one of the faster on record, running well under two hours. Chailly’s brisk tempo lent a sense of urgency to this sometimes wayward piece that bolstered the work’s inherent drama. The dialogue passages felt emotionally empowered, the suspense raised. This worked especially well in Part I for introductory choruses like “Dein Will gescheh,” creating a dynamic entrance into the tale of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

On the other hand, something was missing from the performance insofar as the tempo, once established, rarely changed. This undermined the text’s dramaturgical structure and natural cadence. Obvious moments of dramatic pause and carefully structured chapter endings lost their weight as the orchestra plowed into the next section. This unorthodox tempo, although enlivening in some places, came at the expense of clear musical story-telling.

This was sometimes countered in the second part by the solo instrumentalists—especially the duo violists and lutist featured in the tenor aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” —whose able Baroque technique provided the competence of sound to match Chailly’s tempo. The musicians’ concord and apt punctuation of Bach’s lilting countermelodies is precisely the level of musicianship required to pull off the historical authenticity Chailly’s pace mandated.

Unfortunately, such musicianship was not as present among the vocal soloists whose flaccid diction forced audience members into their program booklets for a clue as to what was being said. There seems to have been some illness going around as both Yorck Felix Speer (Christus) and James Taylor (solo Tenor) called in sick for both concerts. Evangelist Jörg Dürmüller might have done better to do the same; his abbreviated high notes and waning energy struck one as a live demonstration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Most lamentable was the Alto soloist Maria Riccarda Wesseling whose tendency to swallow her own voice rendered two of the greatest arias of the Baroque period completely inaudible. Her sturdy coloratura was paltry compensation.

Two diamonds in the rough were Soprano Katerina Beranova and Bass Joch Kupfer as Pontius Pilate. Beranova has a delicate and precise voice and her work ethic did not go unnoticed; she was the only singer to perform off-book. Her musicality as well as her emotional openness lent a playful charm to her first aria, “Ich folge Dir gleichfalls,” as well as a sacred touch to her second, “Zerfliesse mein Herz.” Beranova could stand to develop her volume capacity as well as her enunciation—although I’ve yet to hear a comprehensible Zerfliesse from any soprano. Kupfer as well, despite his powerful voice and precise diction in the Pilate recitatives, failed to achieve that precious blend of musical sensibility and textual clarity one so dearly yearns for in Bach.

The greatest vocal achievement of the evening was by far that of the 30-person choir. The collective attention to pitch, timbre and tempo fostered a purity of tone normally exclusive to the most elite boy choirs. The precision of the melismatic opening chorus floated above the somewhat overcooked strings. And the expertly executed entrances as the Jewish mob both startled and astounded.

Alas, the choir too failed to communicate the text in any comprehensible way. And as during the solos, the turning of program pages in the audience became its own musical event.

And yet, neither impersonal tempi nor sloppy diction could deter the dramatic greatness of the final chorale. Following the more somber chorus “Ruht wohl,” this closing anthem with its strong homophony and major mode captures the euphoric optimism of the Easter story while hinting at the eternal return of this magnum opus: “Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend / And I will praise Thee without end!”

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