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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750), arr Robert SCHUMANN (1810 - 1856): Johannes-Passion (St John Passion) (BWV 245)

Elisabeth Scholl, Veronika Winter, soprano; Gerhild Romberger, contralto; Jan Kobow (Evangelist), tenor; Ekkehard Abele (Pilate), Clemens Heidrich (Jesus), bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Trebles of the Kölner Domchor; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: September 19 - 21, 2006 (live), Knechtsteden, Basilika
CPO - 777 091-2 (© 2006) (1.43'24")

Ask people which of Johann Sebastian Bach's Passions they prefer, and probably 9 out of 10 will answer: the St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion has always been in the shadow of its larger counterpart. In the Netherlands, where I live, there is a long-standing tradition of performing the St Matthew Passion every year, but no such tradition exists in regard to the St John Passion. In particular the large number of arias make the St Matthew Passion the most popular, and many also consider it the most dramatic, although that is highly debatable: one could also argue that its more concise character and the relatively small number of arias make the St John Passion the more dramatic of the two. The difference in appreciation is not a phenomenon of our time. In the 19th century, when Bach's religious music was rediscovered, the difference in the appreciation of Bach's Passions was largely the same. The first performance of the St John Passion in the 19th century took place in Berlin in 1833, by the Berlin Singakademie, directed by Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen. The reception was rather lacklustre in comparison to the deep impression the first performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1826 made. The man responsible for this performance, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, never paid any attention to the St John Passion.

Robert Schumann had a different opinion on the St John Passion. Like many others he highly appreciated the St Matthew Passion, but when he became acquainted with the St John Passion - most likely by just studying the score - he was very impressed and from his writings one may conclude that he in fact preferred the smaller of Bach's two Passions. In 1849, in a letter to the director of music in Hamburg, Georg Dietrich Otten, he wrote: "But do you not also happen to find it much bolder, greater, and more poetic than the one based on the Gospel according to Matthew?" He considered the St Matthew Passion "not entirely free of lengthy passages, and indeed altogether much too long - whereas the other is as if pressed for time, though quite brilliant, especially in the chorus work, and what great art!".
While still in Dresden he started to perform choruses from the St John Passion in public performances of his own choir. When he moved to Düsseldorf, where he had been appointed director of music in 1850 he planned to perform the entire work. That wasn't easy: he faced the same problems Mendelssohn had to deal with in his attempts to perform the St Matthew Passion. The main problem was the instrumentation: instruments like the lute and the viola d'amore were not used anymore and had to be replaced by other instruments, and a solution had to be found for the realisation of the basso continuo. In addition he had to find singers who were able to perform the solo parts. This particular problem caused some sections to be omitted in the first performance which he conducted in 1851. Fortunately Schumann's conductor's score for this performance has been preserved which contains much information about instrumentation, dynamics and articulation. But as some of his notes are rather rudimentary a modern performer has still much work to do and use his knowledge of Schumann's preferences regarding performance practice and of the aesthetic ideals of the time to create a convincing performance. Even so a modern performance can never pretend to be a 'reconstruction' of Schumann's performance of 1851.

Although the booklet contains extensive programme notes it isn't always clear to what extent Schumann has 'arranged' Bach's score. Part of the problem is that some changes had to be made at the last moment because of a singer not being available. The arias 'Mein teurer Heiland' and 'Zerfliesse mein Herze' were omitted in Schumann's performance. Here they are both performed, though, but the booklet doesn't make it totally clear to what extent Schumann has left notes as to what instruments he wanted to use. Confusing is what the programme notes have to say about the aria 'Mein Jesu, ach!' (the text which replaced 'Erwäge' in Bach's fourth version of 1749). According to Thomas Synofzik this aria wasn't included in Schumann's performance, "probably mainly due to problems with the instrumentation". But in this performance it is sung: according to Hermann Max this aria was "eliminated on short notice from Schumann's performance". Do we have to conclude from this that Schumann did want it to be performed and that he gave some indications in regard to its instrumentation? That remains a mystery.
It goes beyond the scope of this review to list all changes Schumann made in comparison to the original. I'll just give some examples. As there was no tenor involved - apart from the interpreter of the part of the Evangelist - the tenor solos are set for soprano. The basso continuo part is performed with pianoforte, cello and double bass. In the arioso 'Betrachte meine Seel' the part of the lute is given to clarinet and violas, whereas the two viola d'amore parts have to be played on muted violins. Although the aria 'Zerfließe mein Herze' wasn't performed by Schumann there are indications in his notes that he wanted the oboe da caccia part to be played on the basset horn, and that is how it is performed here. The most drastic change is the instrumentation of the aria 'Es ist vollbracht'. In the slow section the part for viola da gamba is given to a viola, whereas the basso continuo is performed by viola and cello. But in the fast section Schumann adds parts for two trumpets, underlining the triumphant character of the text. Trumpets in a Passion - that is probably too much to swallow for many modern listeners, even those who could live with all the other changes in the instrumentation.

It is not easy to perform an arrangement like this. In particular an ensemble which often performs baroque music - and will have performed Bach's St John Passion more than once - could easily play this work in a too 'baroque' fashion. Most of the turbae choruses, for instance, are sung at more or less the same speed and with the same flexibility as in baroque performances. I sometimes wondered whether the tempi are not too fast. On the other hand, the chorales are sung in much more romantic fashion, for example in sometimes ignoring the fermatas at the end of the lines. Interesting is the performance of the recitatives. For the interpretation Hermann Max used a book by Adolph Bernhard Marx (Die Kunst des Gesanges, 1826), whom Schumann admired. He "called for free treatment of the note values and rests in keeping with the rhetorical flow". Hermann Max rightly concludes that this reflects the practice of the baroque era. Therefore in this performance the recitatives are not that different from those in 'authentic' performances of Bach's original score. The main difference is that no appogiaturas are sung, which was common practice in the baroque era.
There are also some deviations in music and text from the original. This is only referred to in the booklet without further specification, as that would take too much space. There are changes which reflect the 'modernisation' of the German language, and often the present tense is changed into past tense.

The key figure in a performance of a Passion is the Evangelist. This role is brilliantly sung by the German tenor Jan Kobow. His diction is impeccable, and he rightfully adapts his articulation to the romantic performance practice. The original soprano part is sung by Veronika Winter, who does so very well. Elisabeth Scholl sings the part which Bach gave to a tenor. Not only is this part technically demanding, its tessitura is rather high, and it is perhaps due to this fact that Schumann didn't have a tenor available to sing it. Ms Scholl does a marvellous job here, and her voice never sounds stressed, not even at the top notes. Gerhild Romberger gives a good account of the alto part, in particular in the first aria, 'Von den Stricken'. I am less happy with the other aria, 'Es ist vollbracht', where she uses too much vibrato. Clemens Heidrich is excellent in the role of Christ, and Ekkehard Abele is doing well in the arias and in the role of Pilate, although the lowest notes are a little weak sometimes. There are impressive performances of the choir and the orchestra whose contributions are crucial to this interpretation of Schumann's arrangement of Bach's masterpiece.
In the chorales the sopranos are supported by 20 trebles from the Kölner Domchor (the Choir of Cologne Cathedral). This is in line with Schumann's own performance, where 50 trebles were used. This is an indication that the vocal and instrumental forces he had at his disposal were larger than those Hermann Max uses, among them a choir of just 28 singers. But maybe the sound his ensembles produce isn't that much different from the sound of Schumann's forces. His performance took place in a concert hall, whereas this recording was made in an apparently pretty large church. The reverberation is often a problem, but here it works in a positive way, making the ensembles - and in particular the choir - sounding larger than they are.

As I already have indicated the booklet contains extensive information about Schumann's treatment of Bach's score, and about the decisions which have been taken to realise this performance. It is a shame that the trebles of the Kölner Domchor are omitted in the list of performers. There is also no indication that this recording was made during live performances, which explains some (minor) technical imperfections and background noises.

This recording is a testimony of Robert Schumann's appreciation of Bach's St John Passion. One can only be grateful that his role in the rediscovery of Bach's sacred music is brought to our attention with this impressive recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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