Tuesday 14 June 2011

What we have lost: Bach's St Matthew Passion rendered unperformable?

A recent, very costly, mishap was to leave my iPod on an aeroplane. Sad to say, it was never found. Since it has become an essential working tool, quite apart from being a comfort upon otherwise unbearably crowded railway carriages, I had to bite the bullet and buy another. Memory constraints meant that I had very little music stored on my computer - I shall have to find a way of rectifying that - so I have slowly but surely been selecting recordings and importing them. In most but not all cases, I have tried to stick to one recording per work, which has involved making interesting but difficult choices. Which versions of the Mahler symphonies? I actually managed to stick to one each: for the moment... Which versions of the Beethoven symphonies? In certain cases, I did not manage to stick to one each... As for the greatest musical work of all, and I tend to think the greatest work of art bar none, Bach's St Matthew Passion, I simply could not choose between various performances, all of which, tellingly, were of a certain vintage or older. Below are the opening choruses, which I have found available on Youtube. How can we have allowed this monumental, shattering chorus to be reduced to an out-of-tune, meaningless dance? Do present-day performers never even read the words? And it is not simply a matter of period instruments. Riccardo Chailly, when I heard him conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, took this very chorus at an unyielding, breakneck tempo I should have found obscene, had I not been near-anaesthetised by my astonishment. Listen, by contrast, to the tempo variations introduced by Willem Mengelberg in his Palm Sunday performance from 1939 (there are a date and place to conjure with...), not at all arbitrary, but responding to the text in what remains perhaps the most vividly dramatic reading of all:

Or to Otto Klemperer, whose magisterial, terrifying, yet plain-spoken pageant does not rely upon such adjustments, but which proves every bit as responsive to words and music:

Or to Wilhelm Furtwängler's seething, searing, metaphysical drama, not only presaging but perhaps going beyond Tristan und Isolde:

Or, finally, to Karl Richter, whose conception is so clearly, overwhelmingly founded in a profound theological understanding of the work:

And then think of what we must endure today. As Theodor Adorno, writing in the aftermath of the Bach anniversary year 1950, unforgettably put it, 'Bach's devotees' might 'say Bach,' but they 'mean Telemann'. The situation is if anything even worse today, for the devotees no longer seem even to mean Telemann, preferring a bizarre freak-show to would-be restoration of the merely generic German Baroque. Now, more than ever, we need to recognise, in Adorno's words again, that 'the difference between what is past and what is present … is not absolute. One can only understand Schoenberg if one understands Bach; one can only understand Bach if one understands Schoenberg.' And, indeed, to say the same of subsequent composers. Thank goodness, then, for recordings...

For more on Adorno, Furtwängler, and Bach, and some of the unsavoury roots of the 'authentic' movement, click here.