Review: Encounters in space and time

Tom Purdom in Broad Street Review
February 10, 2015

The classical tradition may seem fixed, but it’s actually shaped by a never-ending dialogue. In the last week, Orchestra 2001 and the Mendelssohn Club presented concerts that highlighted two aspects of that dialogue: Orchestra 2001 looked at the current state of the cultural dialogue between Asia and the West, and the Mendelssohn Club recreated a historic moment in the dialogue of the eras.

A musical reprise

The Mendelssohn Club reprised a pivotal moment in music history, Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In the years since his death in 1750, Bach had slipped into a low status that seems incredible today. He was still remembered as an organ composer, but his vocal works had been consigned to the library shelves. Mendelssohn belonged to a small group that had continued to play Bach’s music, and his St. Matthew Passion restored it to public attention.

Today, we usually perform Bach’s works with the small choruses and orchestras actually used in his day. Groups like Choral Arts Philadelphia and Vox Ama Deus even use the kinds of instruments played in the 18th century. Mendelssohn adapted the St. Matthew to the tastes of his own time. He conducted a big chorus and orchestra and cut the work to two hours. The Mendelssohn Club presented his version with the 170 voices it normally fields, supported by a 50-piece orchestra.

The large-scale version was just as intense and dramatic as the smaller, more historically accurate performances I’ve heard. Mendelssohn’s cuts left out bits like Pilate’s touching dialogues with his wife, but they sped up the action.

Two lacks

For me, the major difference was a loss of intimacy in two areas. The score includes parts for secondary characters, like Pilate, that are normally sung by members of the chorus; they seemed less immediate when they were delivered from the back of a big chorus. The obbligatos lost something, too. Bach accompanies the arias with obbligatos by solo instruments, and the interplay between voice and instrument seems more like a duet when the instrumentalist is standing near the vocalist.

But overall, the big 19th-century version is just as effective as our modern copies of 18th-century performances. Alan Harler conducted his big forces with a skill and understanding that maintained one of the fundamental appeals of Bach’s music; you could always hear the different sections of the orchestra and chorus as they created the individual threads in Bach’s complex sonic tapestry.

The Mendelssohn Club audience participated in a dialogue between three eras. A 21st-century audience experienced a 19th-century approach to an 18th-century masterpiece. In Bach’s own day, his audience would have heard the passion as the central event in a church service — a musical reading of a basic text of their faith. For them, the promise of eternal life in the arias would have been a literal truth. In that respect, Mendelssohn’s audience would have been closer to Bach’s congregation than most of the people in the contemporary music audience. Bach’s music creates a link that connects us to worldviews and attitudes that are just as alien, in their way, as the worldviews of the Asian cultures represented in the Orchestra 2001 concert.

Read the full article here.