J.S. BACH: St. John Passion, BWV 245 – Uta Graf, soprano/Marga Hoeffgen, contralto/Julius Patzak, tenor/Gerard Souzay, baritone/Walter Berry, bass/Vienna Symphony and Vienna Singers Academy/Fritz Lehmann
Music & Arts CD-1238, (2 CDs) 63:16; 56:51 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Bach set the fourth Gospel, According to Saint John (chapters 18-19 in Martin Luther‘s translation), for a Good Friday performance in 1724, adding commentary that would instruct and edify, both depicting the story of the Crucifixion and reinforcing its moral import to a body of the faithful. The richly layered textural and musical realization consists of chorales, arias, recitatives, and hymn, sometimes set in juxtaposition for dramatic and psychological effect. If the arias illuminate the aesthetic element in Jesus’ story, the chorales provide the brethren an opportunity to follow him both in word and action, since the Word should inspire the Deed.
This restoration gives us a live performance from the Grosser Konzerthaussal, 6 April 1955, led by Fritz Lehmann (1904-1956), longtime director of the Handel Festival in Goettingen and exponent of Bach cantatas in concert and on records. The opening song of praise, “Herr, unser Herrscher” rings with massive G Minor overtones of pity and triumph which define the notion of “passion” music. The coloring of the instrumentation–including two oboes di caccia, lute, viola d‘amore and viola da gamba–insinuates an archaic element into the proceedings–as in the tenor melismas–while ennobling their dignity. Part One – roughly one third of the score – opens in Kidron Valley and moves to scene two, the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas for Jesus‘ interrogation. Part One ends with Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus. Part Two divides into three scenes: one with Pilate; the scene at Golgotha–Jesus humiliated between two thieves–and finally at the burial site.
The wondrous transaction of voices–the dramatic characterizations–begin at the recitative, “Jesus ging mit seinen Juengern,” in which the evangelist, Jesus, and the dramatis personae blend courtesy of Julius Patzak, Gerard Souzay, and Walter Berry. Already the Chorus laments, “O grosse Lieb.” The aria, “Von den Stricken meiner Suenden,” “out of the tangle of my transgressions,” has alto Marga Hoeffgen intertwine with oboes and organ continuo as she contemplates the community’s complicity in Jesus’ sacrifice. The soprano aria, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” pairs Uta Graf with unisono transverse flutes as her soul takes flight, pushed and pulled simultaneously in competing raptures of pain and ecstasy. Anguish permeates the tenor aria, “Ach, mein Sinn,” a paroxysm of stabbing guilt abetted by the full orchestra in chromatic harmony. The Chorus sympathizes with Peter’s plight in F-sharp minor, his moral cowardice, the human, all-too-human penchant for self-preservation.
Ferocious tumult saturates No. 16 at Part Two, “Da fuehreten sie Jesum von Kaiphas,” as Jesus must confess to his “transgression,” calling himself King of the Jews. Bach punctuates the ensuing drama as a musical triptych, crowd choruses separated by an aria, the Chorus both demanding Christ’s blood (“Kreutzige, kreutzige!) while forced to admit his being Our freedom, the Son of God, at No. 27. What a lovely moment is the bass arioso-recitative, “Betrachte, meine Seel,” Consider, my soul. Wonderful counterpoint at the chorus, “”Laessest du diesen los. . .” (if you let this one go. . .) and another poignant twist at Pilate’s “Sehet, Welch ein Mensch!” (behold the man you have condemned).
The bass aria, “Elit irh angefochtnen Seelen” moves us with its anguished plaint, the repetitions on “Where, where” that indicate the loss of immunity and salvation. Increasingly, the Evangelist loses any sense of objectivity, and his chronicles become saturated in empathetic agony, tinted by an overwhelming feeling of loss due to human weakness. The Chorus at “In meines Herzens Grunde” confirms that fatal valediction. Even more pitiful is the chorus, “Er nahm alles wohl in acht,” intoned after Jesus’ acknowledgment of his own mother. The action now hurries to the supreme moment, Christ’s appointed torment, death, and resurrection through the Cross. Jesus utters his “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is finished!) in which a viola da gamba in a descent accompanied by the organ ushers in mezzo-soprano Hoeffgen in deep lament.
Suddenly, “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht” announces a spiritual victory in the midst of apparent defeat–only to return to the viola da gamba and its meditation on all spiritual paradox. Lacking the literal drama of the earthquake following Jesus’ death, Bach interpolates verses from Matthew in the tenor aria, “Mein Herz!” which comments on the event with rapid chromatic strings; then the soprano joins the flutes and “hunting” oboes for the lengthy “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” (with tears overflowing), which extends the allusion. Joseph of Arimathia implores Pilate for the body of Christ–as the Sabbath is nigh–so that he can inter Jesus in the tomb meant for Joseph himself. The Evangelist himself finds this charitable act touching. Bach ends with an extraordinary lullaby, “Ruht wohl!” (Rest well!) and a postscript, “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb’ Engelein,” may cherubim bear my soul away. This last moment of divine simplicity, suggests commentator Michael Steinberg, concludes with the “expressive immediacy” which makes this grand work of faith endure.