The famous Tryptich on the Altar at the Thomaskirche is loaned by Leipzig University. It was originally at the Paulinerkirche, now demolished.
A brief reflection on 12-15 March, Rehearsals and Performance
It was the UK ‘live’ première of this early version, something we were able to establish finally just before the performance, and what a week it turned out to be! A wonderful opportunity to think afresh about a work we think we know well. So first of all our thanks to everyone who supported us: Arts Council ‘Grants for the Arts’, our donors, the John S Cohen Charitable Trust, a Community Award from Deutsche Bank AG and our audience who attended and participated. The performance was part of a project ‘About the St. Matthew Passion’ and there are further events to come later in the year including the first performance of a New Work inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew.
The early St. Matthew
We had acquired the music weeks beforehand and our guest director Anthony Robson spent many an hour sifting through the orchestral parts, checking where the differences between this version and the more familiar 1736 score were, questioning some of the notes and ornaments and noting what details would need special attention in rehearsals. The basic structure of the piece is the same. However, not only were some whole movements different (or variants as we called them), but we had to be alert to notational dfferences within each movement too. This is unlike what we find between the two earlier versions of the St. John Passion (1724 and 1725) where Bach confined his revisions to the removal of whole movements and replaced them with others, either specially composed or from an earlier cantata (e.g. the use of material from cantata BWV 23 “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” of 1723 to close the 1725 version.)
Eight singers were hand-picked for the project; a combination of the experienced consort singer and soloist. A separate Evangelist and Christus was cast (see note below). The vocal scores were sent out in January to each singer, including Evangelist & Christus. In addition to the choral parts and solos, the members of the consort assumed the character parts as well, forming two choirs of four voices each.
A separate Evangelist and Christus
In Bach’s day, these central characters were sung by the tenor and bass in Choir I from the musicians’ gallery above, out of sight, and to the backs of the congregation seated below in the main body of the church. So it would not matter so much from where these roles were sung (from Choir I or as a separate soloist). Nowadays, we perform to the audience seated in front of us. Therefore there is more direct contact and an inherent need for people listening to focus more clearly on the central roles: the Evangelist as he relates the narrative and on Christ, the centre of the Passion. Would JSB have minded? Hopefully not.
Charles Daniels replaced an indisposed James Gilchrist as the Evangelist and Peter Harvey sang the part of Christ.
With the musicians having studied and prepared their obbligatos afresh in advance, there was a distinct air of expectation and anticipation right from the first rehearsal in Studio 2 at The Warehouse. This atmosphere lasted all week. It was a sort of grandiose “spot the difference” experience that raised many a smile - and many a query too. For example, addressing the latter meant avoiding the temptation to impose ornaments contained in the more familiar 1736 score on this early version so that we would keep faith with what was in the parts before us, accepting that what we played were Bach’s ‘first’ thoughts and, as time would eventually reveal, that the St. Matthew was actually still ‘work in progress’. Therefore some familiar ornaments were missing most notably in the alto aria (No 39) “Erbarme dich…”. During some arias or recitatives, the validity or accuracy of various notes was questioned. Were they Joh. Christoph Farlau’s mis-copyings? The note(s) don’t fit the harmony! How should we resolve this? We also included the recorders in the tenor recitative with chorale (No 19) in Part 1 that featured later in the 1736 version. They have been otherwise omitted, with the parts given to the flutes (flauti), but we put this down to Farlau thinking contemporarily in the 1750s when making his copy – recorders had gone out of fashion by then, so he simply left them out. At least that is our assessment.
We were offered a very good slot on BBC Radio 3′s In Tune, so having discussed what we wanted to do with Producer David Papp, all was agreed and off we went to Broadcasting House. Now, ‘live’ broadcasts are a challenge, but also the zenith of the art; Presenter Sean Rafferty created an easy atmosphere so as pros we just got on with the job! Simon Wall (tenor), with our magnificent continuo team of Andrew Skidmore and Alastair Ross, performed the aria in Part 2 “Geduld, geduld…” in which Bach’s first ‘thoughts’ differ significantly in this version from those we are used to hearing. He and Alastair also performed the simple chorale that closes Part 1 “Jesum laβ ich nicht von mir..”, another substantial difference (Simon singing the melody of this four-part hymn). There was no chorale fantasia ‘O Mensch bewein deine Sünde gross…” to close the first half, the movement we missed most of all. Anthony Robson and I were interviewed setting our project in the context of the London Bach Society’s exploratory performances over 60 years. Then it was back to rehearsals…. and finally to a performance at St. John’s Smith Square that really took off.
We were thrilled that the large audience sang their chorales so readily (an LBS tradition started in 1952); that the attention was rapt for Dai Miller’s magnificent playing on his lute of what is more commonly known as the ‘gamba’ solo; that the absent ornaments and dubious notation were spotted; that the bass soloist began Part 2 instead of the alto; that the violin solos allocated to each Orchestra were reversed and so on…..
NB: All potential future performers: No attempt was even contemplated to amend the 1736 score and parts we already owned to fit the early version. Any performance of it should be approached as a ‘clean sheet’ from the beginning, a new start.
Promoting ‘early’ versions of familiar and beloved masterpieces like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are a risk. People like what they know and know what they like! But this was a risk well worth taking. We now know a lot more about the genesis of the St. Matthew….and so do you!
My thanks to everyone concerned.
Margaret Steinitz Artistic Director, LBS
Consort of Voices
Grace Davison, Alexandra Gibson, Jeremy Budd, Ben Davies; Julie Cooper, Ruth Massey, Simon Wall, Eamonn Dougan
Steinitz Bach Players
Continuo: Andrew Skidmore, Andrew Durban, Alastair Ross
Orchestra I: Catherine Martin, Oliver Webber, Jan Schlapp, David Miller, Rachel Beckett, Christine Garratt (Flutes), James Eastaway, Catherine Latham (Oboes)
Orchestra II: Alison Bury, Jean Paterson, Annette Isserlis, Helen Verney Georgia Browne, Eva Caballero (Flutes), Cherry Forbes, Ruth Theobald (Oboes)
Orchestra & Concerts Manager: Philippa Brownsword