The Saint Matthew portrays the Passion something like a tableau to be observed: the Saint John , as a sequence of events to be experienced.
Contrary to what one might think, they are liturgical music. But Bach wrote it for a community at worship, not an audience at leisure. It was composed for a liturgical service, vespers on Good Friday. It was designed to be heard in the context of prayer, preaching and congregational song.
The two halves were not meant to incorporate an intermission but an hour-long sermon on the Passion of Jesus. When we hear this work, we hear it out of context. We do not hear it as part of the Holy Week music. We do not hear it as liturgical music, performed at vespers on Good Friday. We hear it in an entirely different context — modern, non-ecclesiastical, and in a concert hall setting even though it may take place in a church , or disembodied through speakers or ear-buds — where the music comes to us detached from its original context and is heard in isolation and judged on its own terms and for its own sake.
Bach St John Passion concert programme by Academy of Ancient Music - Issuu
We can be historically informed in our performance, by using period instruments. We can learn the appropriate performance practices associated with this music. But what we cannot do is hear this music with 18th-century ears. We have 21st-century ears that cannot pretend to have unheard the sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Stockhausen. We have 21st-century minds that cannot fabricate the limitations of an 18th-century world-view.
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Therefore we have to create our own context in which to hear this work. In philosophical terms, we have to interpret what we hear so that it makes sense in our modern world, and each one has to create our own philosophical context. Some will hear this music — as indeed it is — as a statement of Christian faith, still powerful, even though it is heard outside of its original liturgical and theological contexts.
Others, who do not share this belief, will ignore its text and subject matter and receive it as marvelous music. But even though it is magnificent music, it is disturbing music. It is, after all, the musical exposition of the trial and execution of one who is innocent, while everyone else in the story is less than perfect.
Bach: St. John Passion (2CD)
But it is not an exercise in despair. This music proves beyond all doubt that, while human nature might be seriously flawed, it is nevertheless capable of creating works of art that give us hope to live by. Just listen to that closing chorale, almost entirely in the major mode, whereas most of the Passion that precedes it has been in the minor.
So at the end, hope conquers despair, death is followed by resurrection.
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With the text "Behold how the righteous man dies," it is an apt moment of reflection after the completed Passion. The various elements of the service in between the two parts of the Passion automatically magnify the accustomed imbalance of Part One and Part Two, with the latter much longer and, of course, graver of tone. But the liturgical context has also brought about a real, perhaps unique, progression in the musical performance of the Passion. Nicholas Mulroy's Evangelist is simple and humble as can be, but in Part Two his tenor solo is sweetly, presentationally sung.
With the musicians keenly attuned to the Good Friday liturgy, it is not reading too much into the performance to hear a "to be continued" quality in the final chorus "Ruht wohl.
Conductor John Butt is a discreet painter every step of the way, beginning the Passion at a surprising moment with considerable urgency, holding on to pedal points with the tenacity other maestros reserve for Ravel's Bolero and pointing up the conspiratorial quality of the oboe da caccia in "Zerfliesse, mein Herze. This project was a major challenge for the recording engineers. It involves a church acoustic, cranky organ overtones and choral groups of vastly different sizes.
Bach: St. John Passion (2CD)
The small Dunedin contingent sings the Passion turba choruses, the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir sings the Passion chorales and the motet, and a large group of Scottish singers portrays the congregation. Yet the recorded sound gives the listener the perspective of sitting in a single seat for the entire evening.
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