J.S. Bach, Herreweghe - Collegium Vocale, Rubens, Scholl, Padmore, Noack, Volle - Johannes-Passion, BWV 245
About BWV 245 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
========= from the cover ==========
Bach's St John Passion
A musical drama of Passiontide
Even before he took on his duties as Kantor of St Thomas's, the Leipzig town council pointed out to Johann Sebastian Bach that he should only "produce such Compositions as are not theatrical in nature". What was meant was, first of all, that he was not to compose any operas, but also that his music for divine service must not bear any trace of operatic influence. Such regimentation is scarcely surprising for a city like Leipzig, which was well known as tradition-conscious, if not conservative, in all church matters, and in which the attitude to opera, which had nonetheless experienced a brief flowering that ended shortly before Bach's arrival, ranged from sceptical to openly critical.
A full ten months after the beginning of his activity in Leipzig, on Good Friday of the year 1724, Bach performed his St John Passion in St Nicholas's Church. Even in the first of the four versions which have come down to us, this work seems to display a sovereign disregard for the stylistic restrictions that had been imposed on the composer. The St John Passion is an eminently dramatic work, although not in a truly operatic or "theatrical" sense. Its dramatic nature appears rather in the way Bach encompasses the events of the Passion in musical forms and represents the story of Our Lord's sufferings in his musical narrative.
The centre of any setting of the Passion is the account of events in the Gospel, which itself exists on two levels. One of these is that of the narrator (Evangelist), the other is that of the characters who express themselves in direct speech (Jesus, Petrus, Pilate and so on), amongst them the various groups, the turbae (the people, the high priests etc.). In the older type of responsorial Passion, which had been established in Protestant spheres of influence since the Reformation and was still widespread until well into the eighteenth century, the text is recited to simple melodic formulas, the lesson tones. The focus here is largely on mere statement of the words of the Bible, not on their interpretation. Bach's setting of the Gospel story, on the other hand, is anything but simple recitation of the text. His Evangelist is an expressive narrator, who through his performance brings us closer to the events he describes. It is no coincidence that it was the first recitative of the St John Passion that Bertolt Brecht repeatedly cited as an admirable example of the gestural character of music. It is also this feature that differentiates Bach's Passion recitatives from the customary type of operatic recitative. In opera, recitatives are a medium for action which takes place in front of us, and therefore can be written in a relatively straightforward manner, since the dramatic context added to what is being said in the music makes up an easily grasped whole. The Evangelist's narrative, on the other hand, is without actual scenic representation, but sets up an imaginary stage, on which, as it were, the action is performed- if we may be allowed this paradoxical formulation- before the listener's eyes as he hears the music.
Tilts striving for expressive elucidation applies both to the Evangelist's recitatives and to the musical discourse of the characters who take part in the action, such as Pilate, torn between raison d'etat and compassion, or the turbae, above all in the confrontation of the people with the governor, which Bach fashions into a vast dramatic scene, scarcely interrupted by contemplative interludes.
Along with what one might call the dramatically interventionist style of the recitatives and the turba choruses, it is the overall formal articulation that makes the St John Passion into a dramatic work sui generis. The text itself suggests an articulation into several scenes: arrest - Jesus before the high priests - Jesus before Pilate - crucifixion - burial. Bach respects this structure by concluding each section with a chorale and by inserting a break after the second scene, which was followed by the sermon when the Passion was performed in a liturgical context. Like the arias and ariosos, all of which are similarly based on free, that is to say non-biblical, texts, chorales also appear within the individual scenes, whose course of events they interrupt as spiritual meditations on the episodes of the Passion. In comparison with the later St Matthew Passion, in which Bach grants a much larger place to the contemplative sections, the dramatic nature of the St John Passion is also shown in the fact that Bach limits the number of arias, and moreover takes pains to tie several of them closely to the flow of the action. In the second version of the work that Bach performed in St Thomas's in 1725, and which is recorded here, the account of Peter's denial is followed by the tenor aria "Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hugel" which in the vehemence of its emotional language and the plasticity of its musical resources gets nearer to opera than any other movement in the St John Passion, with the sole exception of the preceding aria "Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe", which Bach inserted in the 1725 version after the chorale "Wer hat dich so geschlagen". Here, though, the theatricality evoked by the solo bass and the continuo group is set against the solo soprano as she sings the chorale "Jesu, deine Passion", the main theme of Bach's St John Passion, which binds the musical drama to a religious context.
The other two arias in Part I - "Von den Stricken" and "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" - are on the contrary of the contemplative, that is non-dramatic kind. Following his overriding principle of creating the greatest possible narrative continuity, Bach concentrates both these arias, separated only by a short recitative whose content is not important, at a point which is of little significance for dramatic development: to use the terminology of opera, they form an "intermezzo". A similar concentration of contemplative pieces is also to be found in Part II, in the sequence "Mein teurer Heiland" - "Mein Herz" - "Zerfliesse, mein Herze"; these too are broken up by a recitative, the account of the natural phenomena after Jesus' death borrowed from the Gospel of St Matthew. Before this comes the aria "Es ist vollbracht", in which the Saviour's last words become the point of departure for a meditation. After this aria's middle section ("Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht") Bach takes up the words of Christ again and repeats them one last time in the final bar of the instrumental postlude. This is the same melodic figure on which Jesus sang these words in the preceding recitative, and the short report of his death now follows on immediately from it. The aria does not simply emerge from the narration, but expands on the moment to which it refers.
The second version of the St John Passion stands at the end of Bach's monumental project of a year-long cycle of chorale cantatas, and it may have been this context that prompted the composer to replace the original framing choruses ("Herr, unser Herrscher" and "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein") with two large-scale chorale arrangements in this 1725 score. The work's opening is provided by a movement familiar to us from its later use in the St Matthew Passion, "O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross", here in the key of E flat major. Like the other alternative movements that have already been mentioned, this one seems to have its origin in compositions from the Weimar period, whilst the final movement based on "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" is borrowed from the cantata Du wahrer Mensch und Davids Sohn, BWV 23. There are no surviving documents which provide first-hand evidence of contemporary reactions to Bach's work. However, the many alterations Bach decided on (or was obliged to decide on) in the course of the performance history of the St John Passion arouse the suspicion, at least, that his musico-dramatic conception of the Passion narrative was not accepted without opposition from the authorities. And can the great preponderance of contemplative sections in the St Matthew Passion, despite the fact that the text of Matthew's Gospel is by no means less dramatic than John's account, be understood as a reaction to the perception of the St John Passion as too "theatrical"?
-Thomas Seedorf (translation Charles Johnston)