Mendelssohn’s musical alchemy: the rediscovery of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion through 19th-century ears

United StatesUnited States Bach, St. Matthew Passion (arr. Mendelssohn): Soloists, Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Bach Festival Orchestra / Christopher Jackson (conductor). Packer Memorial Church, Bethlehem, PA, 11.5.2023. (LV)

William Sharp singing the part of Jesus © Ryan Hulvat/Meris, Inc.

Evangelist – Dann Coakwell
Jesus – William Sharp
Soprano – Clara Rottsolk
Mezzo-soprano – Luthien Brackett
Tenor – Isaiah Bell
Bass – Enrico Lagasca

When Felix Mendelssohn was fourteen, he read the score of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the Royal Library in Berlin. It had not been performed since Bach’s death in 1750. The effect of the discovery on the precocious teenager was immediate and profound. Five years later, during which he wrote the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mendelssohn created a performing edition from parts used by Bach himself, and organized and conducted three performances in 1829. The King attended with his court along with the leading intellectuals of the day, including Schleiermacher, Heine, Hegel, Spontini and Zelter, and the best of Berlin society.

Mendelssohn further revised the score for a performance at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1841 – where it had first been performed by Bach in 1727 – including restoring arias he had previously cut. For those first audiences, this was no mere nineteenth-century painting of an eighteenth-century original – the Bach they heard through Mendelssohn’s ears was the original.

Mendelssohn had consciously made the experience more user-friendly. He shortened the work to two hours by cutting arias, including those that required a viola da gamba for which there was no contemporary substitute. He compacted the recitatives by flowing them together, backed either by a fortepiano or by quietly luminous strings; at times there seems to be a faint pastel glaze that reminds one of the lovely watercolors he would paint later in 1829 on a trip to Scotland.

More dramatically, he took ‘Erbarme dich’ from the mezzo-soprano, gave it to the soprano and moved the violin solo up an octave – an indication of how imaginatively Mendelssohn considered the possibilities of what he was hearing when he looked at the score. He used clarinets for the already extinct oboes d’amore and da caccia, and achieved a range of uniquely magical effects, haunting at times and eerily sepulchral, in ‘Ach, Golgatha!’. He tried different continuo solutions: a fortepiano in Berlin, two cellos playing broken chords and a double bass in Leipzig. He flirted with using the organ but never got around to writing down more than fragments of the part. And always foremost in his thinking was how to enhance the power of the chorus and its role within the Passion.

And so it was appropriate that the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, led by Christopher Jackson, its new artistic director, would celebrate their 125th anniversary by giving the first performance of Mendelssohn’s arrangement in the first edition to authoritatively address the issues that have been identified with reconstructing what Mendelssohn had in mind. In fact, after six years of planning and research, Malcolm Bruno’s edition was published by Bärenreiter to synchronize with its first performance in Bethlehem. And because the concert was being recorded live for release by Analekta in March 2024, the Choir and Orchestra ran through the complete Passion three times during the week so that they could relax on Saturday afternoon, secure in the knowledge that any slight mistakes could be patched in.

As soon as the low bass instruments rolled out the chords in the opening chorus, it was clear that the Packer Memorial Hall would be the perfect soundstage, large and embracing, for Jackson to keep the music flowing smoothly, sequencing the narrative according to a pace that felt right and aligned with the more emotionally moderate temperature of Mendelssohn’s intentions.

It was striking how the flourishes of an 1815 Nannette Streicher fortepiano (a copy borrowed from Rutgers), superbly played by Charlotte Mattax Moersch, cleansed the acoustical space and set the stage for Dann Coakwell’s pure, ardent Evangelist and William Sharp’s world-weary Jesus, most touching when he cries aloud at the ninth hour. It was in these moments that the performance best captured Mendelssohn’s intent of, in Bruno’s words, ‘bringing out the crucial moments to give expression to human emotions in a heightened form’.

This applied particularly to Clara Rottsolk. She soared with Luthien Brackett in their ‘Mond und Licht’ duet, and took off brilliantly in ‘Erbarme dich’ alongside concertmaster Elizabeth Field who played so thrillingly that if Mendelssohn had heard Field play he would have written her a concerto too. Brackett captured the simple eloquence of ‘Ach! nun ist mein Jesus hin’, and Isaiah Bell and Enrico Lagasca were forcefully enthusiastic in their roles.

And, above all, there were the 94 volunteer singers of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and the 35 professional musicians of the Festival Orchestra. The choir has been performing Bach’s B minor Mass annually since their first US performance in 1900, the legacy of which is a familiarity with Bach’s language and the sense of purpose and community in his choral music. Especially in the St. Matthew Passion, which has such a painful intimacy, and with Mendelssohn’s slight adjustments here and there, the choir and the orchestra phrased together so closely that they seemed to become one musical fabric. The warmth of the choir was complemented by the joy the musicians in the orchestra were clearly taking in all their important solos – perhaps the fact that each was an expert in playing Bach ‘the way Bach would have played it’ had doubled their pleasure in playing Bach the way Mendelssohn would have played it.

After a tremendous earthquake, Jackson brought the Passion home with an ending so deeply satisfying that I knew if this were the only St. Matthew Passion we had, I would survive.

Laurence Vittes

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