The MHS Review 343 Vol. 9, No. 1 • 1985
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David M. Greene
The time has come to do penance for the sins of my nonage! The only two opportunities I ever had to hear the St. Matthew performed live came in my late teens, and I failed to appreciate either of them. The first was a production in the 'National Cathedral in Washington, almost certainly directed by Paul Callaway in his first years there. Though I had experienced very little Bach, I was impressed by the drama of the opening chorus dialogued between the two choirs processing up either side of the vast nave. But that was it. I was "into" opera then and this piece failed to satisfy. After 45 minutes or so, I fled.
A year or two later I was taken to a Stokowski performance of a radical Stokowskian abridgment. I forget whether the instrumentalists were from the Philadelphia or Stoky's All-American Youth Orchestra. The choir, however, was the ubiquitous Westminster-in those pre-Shavian days a large and rather unwieldy body of earnest men and women who produced a sound the texture of modeling clay. For some reason-perhaps economic-Stoky had chosen to use the choir's own soloists, who struck me as a second-rate lot, especially inasmuch as I had never heard of any of them. Moreover, on learning that the Evangelist was called Harold Hedgpeth, I suffered a major attack of the recurrent chortles. I apologize to whatever Hedgpeths may see this, but my pre-school chum Sonny Conquest (who insisted that his full name was Pleasanton Lawes Lowndes·Philip Conquest III) had had a fool three-witches-from-Macbeth rigamarole that began "Once and thrice the hedgpeth groaned." It, alas! proved to be prophetic: Mr. Hedgpeth incurred a case of progressive laryngitis and his utterances were reduced to a wheeze by evening's end.
I might, as I was inclined to do with purportedly great music I did not understand, have illuminated the darkness with a recording, but the times were not propitious. There were only two recordings available, both from RCA. One was a wretched abridgment (in English with organ only) by Manhattan's St. Bartholomew's Choir. The other came from a "live" performance by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony. It retailed at $53, at a time when I was netting about that much per month. Moreover, even allowing for the benightedness of baroque performance knowledge in those days and the fact that Koussevitzky was not a noted Bachian, the set was universally regarded as a disaster. So I had to wait for LP, maturity, and Hermann Scherchen to show me what I had been missing.
The noun passion is mostly used nowadays as a sort of euphemism for the aroused libido. Derived from the Latin, it meant suffering or agony of any kind, and in our specific context, that undergone by Christ during the progenitor of Holy Week. The story was recounted during Holy Week services as early as the fourth century A.D., according to one or another of the Gospel versions. Over succeeding centuries it came to be chanted or sung, and eventually some musical distinctions were made between the narrator (Evangelist), the words of Christ, and those of the people (turba or crowd).
The first "composed" Passions come from mid-15th-century England. Following his break with the Catholic Church, Martin Luther inveighed against such "imitations of truth," but it was not long before they became an important part of Lutheran Lenten ritual. In the latter 17th century in Germany they took a new direction, becoming so-called "oratorio Passions," which interlarded the biblical text with commentary arias and choruses, sinfonias, and appropriate chorales.
Bach purportedly wrote five such works of which two-the St. John is the other-have survived. (Parts of the St. Mark have been "reconstructed"; the St. Luke ascribed to Bach is probably not his.) The St. Matthew was first performed at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Good Friday either in 1727 or 1729, but Bach obviously set great store by it, for he continued to work on the score for more than a decade before it satisfied him.
In terms of authenticity, Corboz's performance strikes me as good middle-of-the-road. Corboz is up on contemporary knowledge of 18th-century practice and thus will not satisfy those looking for Victorian horsehair. However, neither does he appear to affect "original'' instruments, nor does he appear to have the violinist finger the strings with a baseman's mitt or rub their bowstrings with ripe Brie, which may displease thrill-seekers among more radical thinkers. His vocal soloists are a young group just now attaining to international status; his Evangelist is one of the best in the business.
Review of The Passion According to Saint Matthew page 25