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Recordings

J. S. Bach: Johannes Passion
03 Feb 2008

J. S. Bach, arr. Robert Schumann. Johannes Passion.

In 1851 during his first season as music director in Düsseldorf, Robert Schumann presented a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, and unsurprisingly adapted the score both to nineteenth-century taste and nineteenth-century practicalities.

J. S. Bach: Johannes Passion

Veronika Winter, Elisabeth Scholl, sopranos; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, Clemens Heidrich, bass; Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert; Hermann Max, conductor.

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There is, of course, a degree of irony in all of this, for it was mid-nineteenth-century musicians and scholars who began the landmark Bach Gesellschaft complete edition of the composer’s music: landmark in its scope and landmark in the pioneering model of scholarly “pure” editing it presented. The objective ideals of science would soon shape the nineteenth-century birth of modern music scholarship, and a rigorous approach to editing, shorn of adulteration, was a characteristic presage. At the same time, however, some nineteenth-century performances of Bach showed no hesitation to re-clothe the score lovingly in modern garb. Thus, Schumann’s score adds instruments—clarinets here, trumpets there—substitutes available instruments for those that were not—a solo viola replaces the solo viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht,” for instance—alters voice assignments—some tenor arias are sung by soprano—and makes various deletions in the score. Additionally, Schumann’s performance used fortepiano as the continuo instrument, especially prominent for its role in the large number of recitatives.

As an example of the degree of adaptation, the well-known aria, “Es ist vollbracht” shows Schumann’s respectful but creative hand. The original viola da gamba solo, played to the accompaniment of basso continuo alone is recast as a viola solo over low, brooding string harmonies; the heroic second section of the aria, adds trumpets to the orchestral flourishes to heighten the military sound of things. The Bachian details remain reasonably intact though we may perceive those details differently for the adjustment in color. The de-familiarization is an interesting way of meeting this “old friend” anew . . . interesting, and in selective ways gratifying. The brooding low strings of “Es ist vollbracht,” for instance, is not all that distant from certain Bach sonorities—one thinks of the divided viola parts in the early cantatas, for example--and here in the Passion, this later touch may well haunt my own future listening of Bach’s version of the aria. I doubt the later version will ever unseat the earlier—our historical sensitivities, if nothing else, are much too deeply entrenched for that—but hearing the aria with a touch of Romantic melancholy may serve to alert us anew to the affective depths we may find in Bach’s own language.

The performance is an impressive one. In general, Hermann Max and his forces seem to have started with a baroque sound and brought it chronologically forward a bit rather than have taken a later sound and tried to pull it back. This serves the performance well. The choir is flexible and clear; spry in fast passages and well proportioned in solemn moments. The soloists in the main are well-seasoned early music practitioners and we hear in their approach the refined articulative sense and shapely contours born of this specialty. Bach seems to trump Schumann in the vocal sound. Jan Kobow’s rendition of the evangelist’s role is brilliant—compellingly dramatic and wonderfully fluent, and the ease of his high range is remarkable. Similarly so the exquisite high register of Veronika Winter, beautifully controlled in the aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze.”

One of the most startling differences in the Schumann version is the fortepiano accompaniment, here played by Christian Rieger. Through frequent arpeggiation and chordal reiteration he promotes a very satisfying forward motion to the line, welcome in any rendition of the work.

Schumann’s devotion to Bach is well-known, and though modern respect for Bach’s historical “otherness” would deem the arrangement a historical trespass, in Schumann’s world the adaptation serves only to further the devotion. According Schumann the integrity of his own historical “otherness,” we find in this arrangement much that will move and interest. And in the performance we find considerable accomplishment, indeed.

Steven Plank

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