Every year at Passiontide, this member of the race perpetually condemned as Deiciders must weigh his personal and conventionally self-hating mea culpa against those nostra culpas of the liberal, revisionist Christians who claim that all men are created equal as Christ killers. Sure, we did it. We’d been Chosen for that role. Suggesting otherwise would insult G-d. There would be no Christian faith had some group not done the Lord’s will 2,000 years ago. Luther and his heirs should thank us, not burn us.
Are the opposing choices to endure or enjoy performances of Bach’s Passion According to St. John predicated on whether one needs to get into Bach’s head about theology, or is it enough to revere the composer of Es ist vollbracht as an emissary of the divine despite the shocking texts? Does it, after all, matter whether the text which accuses the Jews of crucifying our Lord is amended to say that “the people” did it? We know whodunit. Why euphemize?
Replacing the word “Jews” with “the people” (once upon a time Emmanuel Church did this in readings) is the equivalent of putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David and just as wrong-headed as banning offensive texts and characters from our literary canon. Better to leave John’s Passion text (and maybe Luther’s “Jews and their Lies”) intact as visionary artifacts, while not failing to shrink from recognizing them as cautions against the murderous consequences of the resulting blood libels. And that is precisely what Emmanuel Music did leading up to last night’s sold-out, reverential performance—contextualizing with the obligatory rabbi-led discussion, along with publishing explanations and apologias [HERE]—but not by bowdlerizing Bach with text changes.
I posit that it is enough to surrender to the very universal human suffering of Jesus which Bach so brilliantly cloaked in enduring multidimensional musical meaning.
Bach’s Passion music becomes most fully alive in the context of the painful tensions of human history and experience here and now. In that sense, his music is radical: it goes to the root of both human tragedy and greatness — in which the Divine dwells and longs to be discovered, heard, and felt (Passion/Com-passion). Edgar Brennikmeyer
If Bach’s St. John Passion pales before his Matthew, so does every other man-made score. And it’s not simply because the Matthew employs two orchestras, two organs and two choruses, but rather its significant complexity and inspiration. In response to my call, Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote:
It is absolutely true that the St. Matthew Passion advances harmony like no other work. It’s the overall tonal range and some harmonic details that make it unique. The earlier St. John Passion is special in its own right, notably in terms of the dramatic pacing and the central role played by the biblical text. I wouldn’t call the St. John conventional in its tonal plan but it starts in g minor and ends in c minor, with the flat keys dominating. The more epic design of the St. Matthew gives the composer of the Well-Tempered Clavier the opportunity to go overboard regarding its tonal range: starting in e minor (with an integrated G Major chorale) in the sharp region and ending in c minor (in the flat region). In between he touches on virtually all keys in the two modes, the most extreme in the recit. “Ach Golgatha” in A-flat Major (but in the course of the piece using bass notes like G-flat, C-flat, and F-flat).
That the Emmanuel Music Chorus and Orchestra has abided for 52 years is a tribute to an ever-evolving cadre of singers and players intent on making sacred music happen in the context of worship in a sacred place. Preparing a Bach cantata and service music every week while providing time and energy for mastering an edifice like the John Passion, particularly in the busy days approaching Holy Week, would tax any ensemble. This one rose to a challenge that few other church choirs and instrumentalists could equal for a special occasion, let alone week after week.
Emmanuel Music approaches Bach with mostly modern instruments and well-informed period sensitivities. The mostly standing players (they did so in all the big numbers) began the introduction to the opening chorus sonorously, with swirl and pulse well defined by conductor Ryan Turner’s sure hands, though he did not foreshadow the later turmoil as much as others have. The chorus of 13 entered with a strong salute to “the Lord…whose fame is glorious in every land.” But the German fricatives failed to penetrate the singers’ masks. Turner shaped the choral sound with care but cued what came across as stepped dynamics from the orchestra.
All care about enunciation vanished when Evangelist Charles Blandy presided unmasked (as did all the soloists) at the bronze lectern. Singing with firm, tireless, ardent tones, and idiomatic German, he elucidated Christ’s Passion as if speaking to us directly, while evoking the late Karl Dan Sorensen, the go-to Evangelist in Boston for decades. And his recitatives, wetted with the extremely flexible, sensitive, and nuanced continuo playing of cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, contrabass Randall Zigler, and organist Michael Beattie, filled half of the oratorio’s 100+ minutes with shining zeal.
The placement of Jesus (baritone David Tinervia) behind the orchestra in an echoey part of the chancel disadvantaged him. When he had to project over a standing orchestra and chorus, the apparent force of his delivery seemed thwarted. Because all the other principal characters sang from a lectern opposite the Evangelist, their tones came to us untroubled. Could Jesus have stood in an elevated position close in front of the last supper relief reredos? I suspect that the recording will solve that balance problem.
Though the work comprises 40 well-subdivided numbers, the performance never felt episodic. The interactions among the Evangelist, principals, commenting soloists, and chorus moved seamlessly and inevitably along in a quietly rapturous manner, but only rarely did great drama ensue. We did not sense fear and anticipation in the overture, nor did the chorus scream “Crucify him!” as though they meant it. The playing and singing proved ever reliable and sonorous, but rarely raised our hackles or summoned our tears.
We frankly expected more engagement and role immersion from the Emmanuel Music Chorus, especially since the nine individuals who stepped out to sing arias or brief solos evinced those qualities. Very rarely, such as towards the end of the opening chorale in Part 2 when they emphatically spat out the words “Verlacht, verhört und verspielt (mocked, scorned and bespat),” the chorus gave precedence to words and character over line.
Some of my disappointment may be related to the small size of the chorus, and it didn’t help that masks concealed facial expressions. But from my seat in the third row, I should have been able to register combustion within a lighter dynamic range had there been any. And the choral interjection 21a, “Hail to you, dear king of the Jews!” came to us without irony. Bach hardly would have expected mere beautiful singing there. Again and again, though, the Evangelist brought forth textural theatricality as his personal monodrama.
And it’s also worth noting how a chorus comprising so many soloistic voices could also blend. Though to some extent sections seemed to take on the colorations of individuals. Olivia Miller for sure marked the four-soprano section as her own, and Dana Whiteside clearly propelled the basses.
A disordered citation of high points would include the moment when, over an incredibly chromatic sounding upward-moving baseline in the cello, the Evangelist sang of Peter: “…just then the cock crew / and Peter recalled Jesus/s words / and went out and wept bitterly.” There followed a tenor aria in which Omar Najmi stopped the show with no-holds barred, to-the rafters delivery of Bach’s psychoanalysis of Peter. At 24 b, choral interjections of “Wohin?” into Dana Whiteside resonant and flexible aria “Hurry you tempted souls” made for a telling, almost celestial atmosphere. The soft sonorities of Michael Leopold’s theorbo and Laura Jeppesen’s in-drawing viola da gamba sensitively supported Carrie Cheron’s profound sadness in “Es ist Vollbracht!” Her gorgeous diminuendo sealed the deal after David Tinervia’s luxurious and unforced legato evoked Jesus’s last “Beholds…” The floboe of flutist Vanessa Holroyd and oboist Peggy Pearson positively gleamed along with soprano Carley DeFranco in the aria “Dissolve my Heart,” another big moment.
The obbligato duet between violinists Heather Braun-Bakken’s and Rose Drucker contributed wondrously to the theorbo and basso continuo supporting the subtle and refined baritone Will Prapestis in “Contemplate my soul.” Tenor Jonas Budris, who sang sweetly whenever called upon, found a more soulful affect when the curtain was rent and the crag crumbled.
Conductors through Mahler often cut the moralistic and jolting final sextet from Don Giovanni, choosing rather to end in the Don’s punishment and descent into conflagration. In last night’s John, the closing chorus “Rest Well” imbibed deeply from the varieties of religious experience. If the show had ended with that “lullaby” instead of the final choral, we could have left the church wordlessly, having been superficially scourged and then well healed.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer