It is a Dutch tradition to perform the St. Matthew Passion in the week before Eastern. In churches and concert halls. By professionals and by amateurs. This year I watched 5 different performances on the BRAVA TV Channel. Every night one. From beginning to the end. I listened to hear the differences. All performances made a deep impression on me in different ways. The contagious enthusiasm of the Vocal Markant Ensemble. The passion of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra to get deep into the intentions and feelings of the composer. The celestial boys’ voices of the Thomanerchor with the Gewandhaus orchestre in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The “classical” version in which Mendelsohn rearranged the composition to reintroduce it to ears, hearts and minds of the 19th century inhabitants of Leipzig, by the Dutch Symphony Orchestra. And finally the special and familiar sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, realized over the last 100 years of performing this piece every Eastern season.
One thing I noticed was that all performances seemed to me to be faster than when I first heard the Passion in the nineteen fifties. One more than the other. Ton Koopman was especially fast. It was fascinating to hear the violin solo of the Aria ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder’. In the interpretation of the Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus orchestra the tempo was slower and the violin played more in the traditional way the Chaconne for violin solo is mostly played. Such tempo and style bring old memories back. I hear my father practicing and performing.However in the Koopman interpretation you really could hear and see the silver coins rolling down the temple steps. Mendelsohn had left out this aria altogether, as well as most of the Chorals. He must have thought that these reflections on specific events in the story were unwelcome interruptions of the dramatic flow of music and text for the ‘romantic’ audience of his time.
The performances also showed how the environment influences the performance: in the church it gets a real protestant (Lutherian) meaning, while in the concert hall it becomes more a secular reflection on the forces of good and evil in our lives. Other interesting details are the way the basso continuo was performed, sometimes without organ, sometimes with one organ, some times with an organ in each Coro. Performing with only male voices (or almost only) or with a mixed chorus had different effects. Then the line up of the two orchestras. In the church they were most probably closest to the possibilities Bach had himself. On the concert hall podium, the orchestras were much larger and the Coros had much more players. What stayed the same was the powerful music: deeply moving by touching on a range of emotions. I remember how long it felt the first time I sat in the church listening to the Mattheus. How incredible it was to play the violin in Coro I and be in the middle of the sound with our student orchestra. And how I slowly over the years learned to apprecfiate the different parts of this phenomenal composition, always discovering something new. I look forward to next year.