Once again the American Bach Soloists (ABS) began their subscription series with a major composition by Johann Sebastian Bach requiring the entire program for its performance. Last year was the BWV 244b setting of the Passion text in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the “b” referring to the manuscript of the earliest version of this work. This year the offering was BWV 245, the Passion setting based on the Gospel According to Saint John, presented in the second version (of four) that Bach arranged of this piece. Yesterday afternoon this program received its San Francisco performance at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.
BWV 245 was composed for the Good Friday Vespers service held in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1724. This is the version that tends to be most frequently performed and recorded. The version performed yesterday incorporates revisions introduced for the 1725 service; and my preview piece gave a brief account of those revisions (with the kind assistance of Wikipedia).
To those who know BWV 245, the most striking of these changes will probably be the decision to replace the opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher.” With its extensively prolonged chain of suspensions in the upper voices of the winds intoned over the ostinato churning in the string section, this movement is often held up as an example of Bach at his most ingenious, even before the chorus sings its first notes. The replacement, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß,” is a much more straightforward chorale prelude that would later find its way into BWV 244, leading one to speculate that “Herr, unser Herrscher” was just too demanding for the musicians at Bach’s disposal.
From a dramatic point of view, the most striking change was the decision to conclude with “Christe, du Lamm Gottes,” which is the German translation of the “Agnus Dei” portion of the mass. With this conclusion, all of BWV 244 becomes a prolonged reflection on that brief portion of text from the daily liturgy. Bach’s congregation would have recognized the connection immediately and appreciated its relevance to Good Friday.
The three new arias are just that, new material that we do not encounter anywhere else in the Bach canon. The most interesting of these is “Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe,” which is an example of Bach’s technique of interpolating the lines of a chorale into an aria text. That chorale is usually sung by the chorus; but for this aria it was sung by a solo soprano (Clara Rottsolk), whose voice perfectly complemented the turbulent text sung by bass Joshua Copeland.
None of these changes take away from the high point of BWV 245, which is the expressively dramatic role taken by the chorus in representing the hostile crowd (manipulated by the high priests in John’s account) pressuring the severity of Pilate’s judgment and leading ultimately to the Crucifixion. Bach depicts “the madness of crowds” (to appropriate the phrase coined by Charles Mackay) with a maddeningly intricate contrapuntal fabric of lines rushing up and down, frequently crossing and occasionally colliding. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas led a relatively sparse four-part chorus (four voices to each part) through which the sophistication of Bach’s inventiveness was crystal clear. If the heart of BWV 244 is Matthew’s text and the reflections on that text provided by the arias, then BWV 245 is distinguished by its more intense dramatism, particularly in these “crowd scenes.”
This is not to dismiss the significance of either the narrative (delivered by tenor Aaron Sheehan as the Evangelist and baritone William Sharp singing the words of Christ) or the reflective arias sung by Copeland, Rottsolk, countertenor Brennan Hall (who got the other two “new” arias), and tenor Derek Chester. Nor can we ignore the instrumental ensemble, whose reduced strings matched the scale of the chorus. Finally, the entire score was managed at an appropriately narrative pace by Thomas, always keeping the Gospel itself as the core of the performance.
As was the case last year, this pre-Lenten performance did not quite align with the liturgical calendar; but the musical interpretation was rich in reflective qualities that should not be confined to the constraints of any specific dates.