Last night, in a sold-out performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 244 setting of the Passion text in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Jeffrey Thomas reminded us all that the operative noun in the name of his ensemble, American Bach Soloists (ABS), is “soloists.” The score that Thomas used is based on the manuscript of Bach’s first version of this composition, which he handed down to his principal assistant (and son-in-law) Johann Christoph Altnickol (now given the catalog number BWV 244b). In the highly informative notes in the program book, Thomas makes the case that this manuscript supports the hypothesis that every line of the score was intended for a single performer, the only exception being the choral hymns, which, because of their familiarity, were probably sung by the congregation.
BWV 244 is a large-scale work, longer in duration than many operas. (It has been performed with various approaches to staging by both opera and ballet companies.) Felix Mendelssohn’s revival in 1829 probably had a strong dose of that operatic aesthetic; and, when one listens to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1954 recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker, Wiener Singverein, and Wiener Singerknaben, one could easily accuse him of conducting the music as if it were a very early opera by Richard Wagner.
However, the duration of BWV 244 is determined by the Lutheran Good Friday service, rather than any operatic narrative; and the physical setting was the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, rather than the Paris Opera, La Scala, or Bayreuth. While the Thomaskirche may be noticeably larger than our own St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, where Thomas conducted the ABS performance of BWV 244b last night, it still housed Lutheran services predicated on a personal relationship between the congregant and the Divine Word of Holy Scripture. It is that premise of personal relationship that motivates the musical emphasis on individual players, rather than the larger scale of symphonic and choral ensembles.
Last night’s performance honored not only the scale of a Lutheran service but also its substance. The “spinal cord” of BWV 244 is Matthew’s text, even if its musical treatment is only in the form of recitative. Thus, the performance is dominated by the tenor voice of Matthew himself (Wesley Rogers) and his account of the words of Jesus (baritone Joshua Copeland, accompanied by high strings as well as continuo). All other “roles” are assumed by the singers in two one-to-a-part choruses. The first of these is slightly larger, consisting of one soprano (Clara Rottsolk), one alto (Danielle Reutter-Harrah), two tenors (Wesley Rogers and Aaron Sheehan), and two basses (Mischa Bouvier joined by Copeland following the Crucifixion scene). The second has only four voices, soprano Anne-Kathryn Olsen, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Derek Chester, and bass Robert Stafford. Each of these choruses has its own instrumental ensemble, sharing only the continuo instruments. All singers who assumed music “roles” in Matthew’s Gospel did so with dramatic conviction, as well as musical. After all, the import of the Gospel is the record of events leading up to the Crucifixion; and, even in recitative passages, Bach used his keen sense of musical invention to underscore than significant.
The telling of the narrative through these characters is then interspersed with the singing of hymns, in which the members of these two choruses joined the sixteen voices (four-to-a-part) of the American Bach Choir. What we might call the “heart of the music” is then realized as arias, primarily for solo voice but sometimes in exchange with one of the choruses. (This usually involved a soloist from the first chorus exchanging with the four voices of the second.) In his notes Thomas observed that these arias take over the role in the service that would otherwise be assumed by the sermon.
Note that this plan involves a structure that is as much physical as it is musical. Thomas deployed his resources on the St. Mark’s altar to enhance our appreciation of the dual nature of these resources and Bach’s approach to “exchange of material,” so to speak. Last summer Thomas showed similar sensitivity to spatial relationships in the “Sanctus” and “Osanna” movements of the BWV 232 B minor mass setting during the ABS summer Festival. The result in BWV 244 was about as convincing a case for the value of music in enhancing religious ritual as could be reasonably imagined. It also provided a gentle reminder that this was the work of a church cantor, whose job it was to advocate that value of music. Some may romanticize (as Mendelssohn may well have done) over Bach the “maker of masterpieces;” but, given the religious context of his position, it might be better to honor Bach as a man who knew what his job was and did it extremely well. Last night’s ABS performance accorded Bach all due honor in that latter perspective.