Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec - Bernard Labadie, conductor. March 25, 2012.

Issac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Dress Circle Center Right (Seat DD10, $47.)

St. John Passion, BWV 245 (1724; rev. 1725, 1732, 1749) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Ian Bostridge, Tenor; Neal Davies, Bass-Baritone; Karina Gauvin, Soprano; Damien Guillon, Countertenor; Nicholas Phan, Tenor; Hanno Muller-Nrachmann, Bass-Baritone.

Between Chung Shu and I we somehow got six tickets to this concert.  Despite all the telephone calls he made, only four of us made it to New York City on this Sunday afternoon (Chung Shu, Agnes, Anne & I).  We went after church, good thing traffic was a breeze, so we made it there in good time.  Chung Shu actually managed to sell the two extra tickets, for about half their original price.  A bit surprising as there were quite a few empty seats; in fact Chung Shu and Agnes moved to our section after Part I.

Bach wrote this piece for use on a Good Friday.  Even though we had heard a couple of Passions before, I was still somewhat surprised that it covers only the last week or so of Jesus’s life (it should, if one had thought about it.)  We heard Bach’s other Passion, based on Matthew.  The Program Notes describes this as a darker and more fiery brother, to me it was at least very different.  Not being a Bach scholar, I certainly do not recognize his entire range of style; still, this piece sounds quite different from what I thought Bach would sound like.  The most notable difference would be the stress on harmony relative to the use of counterpoint; perhaps it is there, but I didn’t get it.

The structure of the composition is quite similar to St. Matthew’s.  You have the Evangelist (John in this case), Jesus, and other characters, who had recitatives exclusively.  The choruses would sing the part of the crowd.  Chorales would be hymns that tend to be on the reverent side (this is the Passion, after all.)  Most of the text was taken from the Gospel of John and Lutheran hymns.  Bach also quoted from poetry and other gospels to round out the libretto.  Evidently scholars don’t know if Bach used a librettist for this work; he did tinker with several revisions.

The Passion consists of two parts, with 40 numbers.  Some of those numbers are in turn divided into multiple parts (up to seven).  All this add up to a rather long program at about 2:15 hours.  It didn’t feel that long though, even though I did have trouble every now and then to keep my concentration.  The Program Notes also describes the technique used by Bach in some of these numbers to generate the desired effects.  I always think there is a bit of oversell in these observations, unless the composer specifically describes what informs a particular passage.

I am typing this sitting inside a plane (en-route to Hong Kong), thus cannot refer to anything except the Playbill I brought along.  I heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the New York Philharmonic where they had a huge orchestra (two, in fact), and a large choral section.  For today’s concert there were fewer than 30 instruments, and 31 singers.  Included in the instruments are a viola da gamba and an archluth (which looks somewhat like a lute.)  The string instruments are “modern” but the bows are period.  The most prominent effect is a subtler sound, which in my opinion doesn’t work very well in Carnegie Hall.  In my view the performance suffered from being from a small ensemble.  A purist would argue orchestras were small in Bach’s days, but I suspect the church isn’t as cavernous as the Stern auditorium.

Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist had the most critical role.  He has an amazing range and did uniformly well.  The other soloists were also good, but their roles are relatively limited compared to the Evangelist.  Perhaps it was how the choir members were arranged, perhaps it was the small number of singers, their performance was just so-so.

If you ask someone what hymn they remember from St. Matthew Passion, many would tell you “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  I didn’t know most of the tunes from St. John, but one of them (“Within my heart’s foundation …”) is actually quite familiar.

On the way back, we were talking about the possibility of trying the chorales ourselves.  I don’t know if I can find 20 or so people interested in doing this, but I certainly intend to buy a copy of the score to study the piece in a bit more detail.

The New York Times writeup on the concert is here.

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