Sunday, 24 March 2013

Shadows of Passion- Bach, Telemann, Altnickol and Graun's "Passions-Pasticcio".

Not there yet- not quite, anyway. In the next instalment we return to the world of weekly sublimity, the ordinary round of cantatas that make up possibly the greatest sequence of choral music ever written. But we're still journeying towards that Jerusalem via some of the Lenten byways and odd little paths. Yes, the last Sunday in Lent before Palm Sunday is called Passion Sunday. But it's only an anticipation- a foreshadowing of the real day of the Passion. So it seems strangely appropriate to listen to a shadow of a Bach Passion- a few brief hints of the greatness of what will come over the next week or so.

The Passions-Pasticcio was only admitted to the canon of genuine Bach recently. Its catalogue number, BWV 1088, puts it right at the back of the queue, along with the fragments and the lost dusty jewels that have been dug out in the last fifty-odd years. To be precise, only a few parts of it are actually Bach. The rest is a jumble together of works by others. In that respect, it's not a pastiche in the sense of composition in someone else's style, as in Grieg's neo-Baroque Holberg Suite, for example. All the parts speak authentically with the voice of their composers, who range from the great (Telemann) to the ought-to-be-better-known (Carl Heinrich Graun) to the probably-best-left-alone (Johann Christoph Altnickol, Bach's copyist and son-in-law). And even one of the parts that is probably by Bach is actually based on a motet by his predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau. Clear? Good. I'm not even going to get into the fraught debates over whether Bach himself glued the whole collage together, or Altnickol, or Uncle Tom Cobbley. Let's just listen to it.

Usually, I'm spoilt for choice with recordings of Bach cantatas. On Spotify, there are at least five more-or-less complete cycles are available, directed by Gardiner, Rilling, Leusink, Harnoncourt, and Koopman. And there are big chunks of the complete cycle in Karl Richter's big and chunky modern-instrument performances for those who like that sort of thing; moreover, to my joy, Masaaki Suzuki has just finished his stylish and beautiful complete set with the Bach Collegium Japan. And then add to that all the one-off cantata recordings made over the last ninety-odd years- for the greatest (and cheapest to produce) like Ich habe genug, there are dozens! Here, there's just one.

But it's not as if the piece deserves neglect. The very first chorus is by Telemann, the man the Leipzig councillors really wanted. And he sweeps us up in a barrage of repeated questions from the chorus: “Wer is der, so von Edom kommt? Wer? Wer?” “Who is this that comes from Edom? Who?” It's a good question, as the reference is rather obscure. They're quoting from the prophet Isaiah, describing the strange and disturbing figure of the Suffering Servant, part victorious, part wounded. His garments are stained red. Is it with blood? Or with the joyful grape juice from the new wine-pressings?

It's all we'd expect from Telemann: vigorous, exciting- and not quite on Bach's level of emotional depth.. A bass soloist takes on the role of the Jesus-figure, confidently declaiming that Ich trete die Kelter allein, und ist niemand unter den Völkern mit mir.” - “I have trodden out the wine-press alone, and there is no-one from the people with me”. None of the complex anguish of the choruses of the St Matthew or St John Passions here. This is a heroic figure, stamping down the road to the crucifixion. Musically, there's less sense of sheer melodic beauty than one might find in Bach. It feels to me as if the chorus are a vehicle for getting through the words, with the orchestra as the main source of musical interest. That vigour persists in the next big chorus, “Fuerwahr, er trug unser Krankheit”. Handel more famously set the same words in English in the Messiah asSurely he has borne our griefs”, and there's the same stabbing, insistent quality here. I found it quite compelling.

But this sense of drive isn't sustained. The Telemann material stops; a fine little recitative is followed by a pleasant but uninspired soprano aria, which totally fails to live up to the words “Ihr Tropfen, fallt auf meine Brust”- “tears, fall on my breast”. There's a sort of second-rate eighteenth-century rhetoric that confuses crying with saying “I weep” repeatedly, without any underlying emotion. It's all light, happy, and requires little attention; if there were lifts in the 1730s, this would be the music they would play.

And this feeling of attractive but insubstantial music continues until the beginning of the second half. Some of it aspires to opera- for instance, the aria Nimmst du der Kron der Dornen? (“Do you take the crown of thorns?”) has a little of the spirit of one of those Mozart moments where a Very Annoyed Soprano socks it to a rather shocked baritone. But at the start of Part 2 we're confronted with far more complex cross-rhythms in the chorus, a richer orchestral sound with much more independent movement inside it, and overall, a less superficial, more emotionally intense experience. Bach has arrived.

This opening chorus of Part 2, the first actual, real-live echt-Bach in the piece, is an accompanied chorale fantasia of the sort familiar from a dozen previous cantatas. It's a cousin of the great closing chorus of Part 1 of the St Matthew Passion, O Mensch Bewein. And it's followed by an accompanied recitative for the bass, underpinned by a beautiful pair of bassoons (No sniggering). It's one of my hobby-horses: baroque bassoons are amazing, stylish instruments, with a suave, almost jazz-saxophone-like sound. Their modern counterparts are more penetrating, more reliable to play and more practical in a large orchestra- but they've swapped their original laid-back cool for a grumpy curmudgeonliness. So Prokofiev uses that modern sound to symbolise the gruff old grandfather in his Peter and the Wolf. But here, Bach uses that older, smooth-sounding bassoon to its fullness. Their lovely falling phrases lull us into peace, as the bass sings words of rest and comfort: “Meine Ruhe find ich hier...”- “I find my rest here”. And for a moment we're in the dreamy world of Ich habe genug, or the end of the St Matthew Passion when the bass sings Mache dir, mein Seele rein- “purify yourself, my soul” and the listeners are swept away into sleepy, cloudy musical heaven.

It doesn't last, unfortunately. After about 6 or 7 minutes of Bach we're back in the hands of lesser men. But, as the famously cloth-eared Leipzig councillor said when grudgingly giving Bach the job in the first place, if you can't get the best, you have to put up with mediocrity. There are certainly some moments of interest in the remainder of the piece. I particularly liked no. 32, the tenor“Mich entseelt ein banger Schrecken”, with an obbligato that made me sit up from one of those jazz-sax Baroque bassoons.

And Hermann Max's recording generally does a good job with this uneven material. There's stylish orchestral playing from Das Kleine Konzert that brings out the intensity of the repeated chords, and attractive chorus work from the Rheinische Kantorei. I got the feeling that Max selected his soloist more for the sheer beauty of their sound than their technical adeptness. His tenor soloist, Markus Brutscher, has a sweet, transparent voice in the serene recitatives- but the fast beating vibrato at moments of emotional tension wasn't quite to my taste. Similarly, his soprano soloist, Martina Lins, has a clear, light and pleasing instrument. But I felt that sometimes she sacrifices strict pitch accuracy for expression. At one point, when she's singing vigorous downward figurations to the words “Macht und Pracht” in number 37 towards the end of the piece, the melody almost slips down the stairs and falls in a heap at the bottom. I found the countertenor, Ralf Popken, unfailingly pleasant to listen to- always a good start with countertenors- and he sensitively phrases the less earth-shattering moments in the score to make some real music out of them.

Meanwhile, the bass soloist, Hans-George Wimmer makes a beautiful job of the parts that are actually Bach- and does his best with the lumpen aria “Nun darf ich nicht mehr entsetzen”. Yes, it's supposed to be portraying confidence and lack of fear. But it's the sort of thumpy, over-bucolic music that Bach took the mickey out of mercilessly in his cantata The Strife of Phoebus and Pan, setting up sublime Apollonian beauty against the bouncy “hup, hup, hup”style his critics preferred.

There's just one further moment in the recording that's worthy of real note- it's Bachian, rather than strictly Bach. Just before the end, there's an adaptation of an earlier motet by Johann Kuhnau, with additional instrumental parts that it's just possible that Bach himself may have written. The darker emotional colours come back, the instrumental parts become freer, as the bass part dances in a sarabande. It's more inward, less superficial, more Bach. The pseudo-Passion ends with a return to the simpler word of simple melody-led homophony, repetition. This is probably what Bach's congregations were listening out for, and apparently were satisfied by. But what they got in other years was one of the greatest masterpieces humanity and divinity have ever created. For that, we'll wait for Good Friday.

(PS. A note of apology for this extended piece. I realise it's now actually Palm Sunday, not Passion Sunday- and I'm a week behind schedule. I hope to get through Palm Sunday's music over the next day or two, and then the big stuff really starts...)

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